Book Review: The Many Selves of Katherine North, Emma Geen (2016)

July 8th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

How do you say “AMAZING!!!” in bottlenose dolphin?

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

One. Mustn’t trust humans too much.
Two. I know what they can be like.
Three. I was one once—

How can they sell Phenomenautism as image and experience? How can they sell it at all? A Ressy isn’t a consumable. Phenomenautism is meant to consume you.

Buckley always said that reading is the closest an ex-phenomenaut can get to wearing another skin.

The year is 2050, or close enough, and while humans aren’t yet locomoting via our own personal jet packs, we have developed all sorts of cool technology. Chief among them? Phenomenautism, which involves projecting one’s consciousness, using a neural interface, into the bodies of other animals.

At just nineteen years old, Katherine “Kit” North is the longest projecting phenomenaut in the field, with seven years under her belt. She was recruited to join ShenCorp – whose founder, Professor Shen, all but invented phenomenautism – when she was a kid. Kit’s Mum was a zoologist and her father, a wildlife photographer, so an affinity for our nonhuman kin runs in the blood. Kit works in the Research division, inhabiting the bodies of nonhuman animals to aid outside companies and nonprofits with their research; for example, as a fox Kit helped track the local population for a cub study orchestrated by the Fox Research Centre. She’s been a bee, a whale, a polar bear, an elephant, a seal, a mouse, a spider, a octopus, a tiger, and a bat, not to various species of birds. Very rarely does she get to be herself – although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Nor is she quite sure what that means anymore.

ShenCorp is the only company to employ children exclusively, owing to their superior brain plasticity, which aids in adapting to the new bodies (“Ressies”) they inhabit during jumps. As Kit watches her friends and peers disappear, one by one – let go for poor performance – she worries for her own future. When she’s hit by a car inRessy – destroying the body and ending her study prematurely – termination seems imminent. Yet instead of a pink slip, her boss offers her a promotion, of sorts: to the new Tourism division, where the “animal experience” is sold to regular folks – for a hefty sum, natch. Kit finds the idea of Consumer Phenomenautism repugnant … yet not quite as bad as giving jumping up altogether. Kit accepts, unwittingly stumbling into a corporate conspiracy that runs far deeper that she imagined.

I was so nervous about this book, y’all. On the one hand, the concept sounded incredible: seeing the world through the eyes (and nose and mouth and ears and whiskers) of other animals! I mean, how cool is that? And the potential for an animal-friendly, anti-speciesist point of view – in understanding that there are multiple ways of experiencing the world; acknowledging that all animals have unique, valuable, and worthwhile skills; in simply recognizing nonhuman sentience; and in encouraging empathy for those who are like us in all the ways that matter – is incredible.

And yet, as an ethical vegan, I find animal research morally indefensible. (Not to mention often wasteful, redundant, and downright misleading.) Given that the synopsis is rather vague about these “lab-grown animals” Kit and her peers inhabit, I worried that I might not care for the particulars of phenomenautism. If it’s considered acceptable to subjugate nonhuman animals – forcing them to reproduce (or stealing their DNA for cloning), keeping them in captivity, and then using their bodies without their consent – then I’m afraid that phenomenautism’s ultimate goal of “understanding animals” would be so much bullshit. How could we possibly exploit whales or grizzlies or dolphins when we know that to do so causes them suffering? That our own research tells us so?

Unless we’re simply monsters – a sentiment with which Kit might very well agree.

As it turns out, I hemmed and hawed and wrung my hands over reading The Many Selves of Katherine North for no reason: Geen is surprisingly sensitive to the welfare of animals, though the book isn’t without a few flaws in this regard.

It’s a little misleading to say that the Ressies are lab grown; rather, they are lab printed, by a futuristic 3D printer that (re)creates organic matter. After they’re done, the Ressies are kept in stasis in the BioLab until ready for use (and they are reused over multiple jumps, until the body is irreparably damaged). The Ressies have “no CNS, nothing higher than a thalamus, all in keeping with the ICPO standards,” though they are outfitted with “inbuilt movement package[s]” to help phenomenauts adapt more quickly. As far as I can tell, the Ressies are closer to empty shells than sentient animals: hardware just waiting for the software to be downloaded (or projected, as it were). Of course, it probably took a shit ton of animal research to get to this point, but the Ressies in and of themselves don’t seem to involve animal suffering.

What Kit does – and her specialization is in studying endangered animals, which is awesome – is more akin to observational (and possibly experiential) research than anything else: tracking cubs in a population study; counting the number of octopi near an oil rig; figuring out the mechanics of weaving a web, in order to help spiders negatively impacted by a certain pesticide.

This does come with its own set of problems, as the researcher’s actions – or even her very presence – can alter the behavior of her subjects. We see this with Tomoko, the fox cub Kit was forced to leave behind when her body was killed, hit by a car inRessy. Tomoko had been relying on Kit to protect, feed, house, and teach her; Kit’s absence was a huge blow. Had she not entered Tomoko’s life at all, she might have found a more stable adult to lean on. Or maybe not. We’ll never know.

Of course, the Ressies do require regular, species-appropriate maintenance to stay operational. For carnivorous animals, this includes the consumption of meat. (Is it morally acceptable to kill some animals to feed a “tool” that helps other animals?) In Kit’s case, this necessity introduces some trippy, identity- and empathy- bending conundrums. While testing a polar bear Ressy, Kit recognizes that the body is hungry, and she must feed it to keep it working. Seals are a popular polar bear snack, and yet … Kit was once a seal, too!

The chase sags from my shoulders. A taunt of its scent lingers on the breeze. Even here, even as a polar bear, I can remember the sensation of water over sleek skin. How can what I once was become my food? My guts growl in disappointment. Of course, I knew that seals are the staple polar bear diet, but I hadn’t fully faced what it would mean to eat one.

From prey to predator, what’s a girl to do? (A: Leave it to the next phenomenaut to feed the Ressy. Moral conflict, avoided.)

Following this logic, Kit’s disgust at Body Tourism isn’t on behalf of the Ressies so much as the areas in which they operate: the lives and homes of living, breathing, thinking, feeling animals. Kit and her peers have received years of training, and for them, phenomenautism isn’t a fun experience to be bought and sold. It’s a way of life, a career, a passion. Phenomenauts is what they are, not what they do. Just as the field holds great potential for improving the lives of animals – both individuals and species – so too can it wreak great destruction when used carelessly or callously (as we see below).

On the other end of the animal philosophy spectrum, Geen introduces “pro-lifers” who want to “liberate” the Ressies. Whether they’re animal rights “nuts” or religious fanatics who dislike it when scientists play God, we’ll never know, since the plot is so sub that it’s only brought up twice, maybe three times. If it’s the former, I really resent being lumped in with anti-choice extremists through the use of such terminology; while anti-choice vegans do exist, to me infringing on a person’s bodily autonomy is incompatible with an ethical vegan philosophy. Plus, if the Ressies are really just non-sentient shells, what’s the problem? Make us seem irrationally knee-jerk in our response, why dontcha?

[Updated to add: The author saw my review and offered this clarification on twitter, which is pretty rad.

Thank you, Emma!]

Also, Kit’s mom was a zoologist who loved animals. And she loved going to the zoo … where animals are confined to cages just a fraction of the size of their natural habitats; forced to breed and then separated from their families; treated like exhibits instead of individuals; develop stereotypic behaviors and even psychosis (so common it has a name, zoochosis); and sold and/or killed when they no longer attract eyeballs. Zoos are awful places, both to animals and those who care for them.

(Actually, it’s kind of interesting that Geen raises the specter of zoos, if only in passing, in light of Buckley’s defense of Body Tourism: namely, that the experience of wearing another’s skin will lead to an increase in empathy towards animals. This is one of many arguments given in defense of zoos, yet studies – not to mention casual observation; how many times have you witnessed visitors taunting the captives? – suggest that this isn’t necessarily so.)

In summary: The Many Selves of Katherine North is what I’d call animal-friendly fiction. Not explicitly animal rights, but something ethical vegans could maybe get behind. Certainly less objectionable than 99% of the fiction out there. “Pleasantly surprised” doesn’t even begin to cover it; The Many Selves of Katherine North is right up there with Rachel Vincent’s Menagerie with books that knocked me for a vegan loop.

As for the rest of the book – plot, pacing, characters, world-building, potential for real-world moral implications – it’s just spectacular. Let me put it this way: the ARC I read was littered throughout with random +1s and -0s, yet I was so engrossed in the story that they quickly faded from view. Geen held my attention and did. not. let. go.

The “thriller” aspect of the story is, paradoxically, low-key as far as thrillers go (Bourne this isn’t!), and yet surprisingly rich and layered. Kit’s efforts to infiltrate ShenCorp mostly involve hiding in the bushes outside the Center and stealing sammies from Buckley’s cubicle rather than orchestrating an Oceans 11-type heist. Yet ShenCorp’s new Tourism project – as awful as it promises to be – is just the tip of the iceberg.

** Caution: spoilers ahead! **

ShenCorp hopes to introduce home phenomenautism kits within the next decade – letting tourists loose in other animals’ habitats without a professional phenomenaut to mitigate the damage. Which is pretty extensive: in Kit’s guided tours, one blogger, dressed as a tiger, slowly throttled a boar to death – just for funsies (he didn’t consume the body, nor did he eat the other boar Kit had killed in anticipation of his arrival). Later on, a tourist named Britta, inhabiting the body of a very aroused male elephant, invaded a herd of females, losing her footing and falling on and killing a calf in the process. But she offered to pay for the damage, so it’s okay! (Not.)

Already in production: human Ressies, including a (very convenient) doppelgänger of Kit herself, made without her knowledge or consent. When she granted ShenCorp the legal right to use her likeness, she didn’t count on exact copy.

The fourth layer in this ethical clusterfuck cake? A decades-long coverup of the deleterious effects of projection on children. It seems the asking kids to become other animals during a critical time in the development of their own self-identity? Not such a hot idea after all!

** end of spoilers **

Set in a not-so-distant future that’s not too different from our own, The Many Selves of Katherine North introduces some rather exciting – and scary – what-ifs that make for compelling thought experiments. How can a human explain the subjective experience of another animal when our language, which evolved around our bodies, lacks the right words? Does the ownership of your identity extend to Ressies (Clones? Robots?) that wear your face? What is our ethical responsibility, if any, to the Ressies we inhabit – and the spaces they invade? Can phenomenauts fully hold onto their humanity after inhabiting the bodies of nonhuman animals … and, if not, is this necessarily a bad thing? There is such fertile ground here!

The characters are equally complex and richly layered – particularly the phenomenauts, as their careers affect them, transform them, leave an indelible mark on their very selves. Many of the phenomenauts comes across as socially awkward, yet this phrase hardly begins to describe it. After weeks, months, sometimes even years living as other animals, many phenomenauts adopt a very non-human way of approaching the human world: engaging in threat displays when challenged, sleeping in dens, relying on senses other than sight (and then becoming frustrated by the many glaring deficiencies of the human body). It’s fascinating to watch, and makes Kit’s tenuous relationship with Buckley, an ex-phenomenaut and her neuroengineer, that much more compelling.

Geen’s world-building, at least as it relates to the tech (the rest of the world is more or less recognizable as our own), is sensational. I loved learning about the “science” behind phenomenautism, the terms and phrases and slang, not to mention the many ways it can affect/be affected by the kids actually doing the jumping. Geen challenges her readers to imagine the world as it’s perceived by other animals; these “stranger in a strange land” moments are among my favorites in the book.

Honestly, it’s just fabulous. I could go on all day (and I think I already have!).

Read it if: you like a) animals; b) mind-bending speculative fiction; c) philosophical questions; d) Daiya cheese and Beast Burgers.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: A little, but mostly among the secondary characters.

Susie Hammond was a fellow phenomenaut at ShenCorp and a childhood friend of Kit’s – that us, until she was dismissed from the program and left Kit’s sphere. She is black, with dark skin, a “broad nose and dancing eyes, [and an] afro bound up in two fat bunches.” Kit later learns that Susie developed mental problems due to jumping at such a young age (a critical time in the development of self-identity). Susie was a self-harmer who cut herself.

Isaac Wallace, one of the beta phenomenauts, killed himself by jumping off the roof (though he may have thought he was a bird/capable of flight at the time). He was gay or bi; Buckley saw him hitting on a guy at the cafe while they were in college.

Niti Punjab, Kit’s therapist at ShenCorp, is described as having “brown skin.” Presumably she’s of Indian descent.

Faarooq is the ShenCorp Head technician.

Stan and his (unnamed) husband accompanied Kit and her Mum on Lauren’s nature walks; it was Stan who gave her the nickname Kit.

Animal-friendly elements: Yes! See my review for more.


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