Deathhunter by Ian Watson is the book that’s responsible for this blog in a way. I saw it in the window of an antiquarian bookstore in Lincoln, curiosity caught by the name but mostly the artwork on the front cover. The store was closed when I first saw it, but fortunately it opened after lunch. It had narrow corridors between shelves full of books of all kinds, neatly organised if a little dusty. I left with the book and proceeded not to read it for many years, the first of many books that I’d buy. It made sense to put it among the first selection of choices for review, the thinnest book of the four; the blurb promised a fantastical adventure in a far future society with one of the blandest named protagonists for such a journey. The book was nominated for the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, likely in 1981 which was its year of publication. I was curious to see if the artwork on the book had any connection to goings on in the story, dubious of that possibility. What I found within the pages of Deathhunter was far from what I thought I’d uncover but it did answer one of my questions: the artwork on the front had everything to do with the book.
Deathhunter follows Jim Todhunter as the protagonist. Jim lives in a society described as near-utopian by many. In the past mankind nearly obliterated itself in a nuclear war, regions of the planet rendered all but uninhabitable by the radioactive fallout. In the aftermath a new way of living slowly emerged in the areas of the world that were spared devastation. People concluded that refusing to accept death was what had brought humanity to the brink of extinction, fuelling war and conflict. Only through embracing death without fear could humanity avoid a repeat of the dark times of their past. The change was slow at first, but over time a new way of living emerged. The weapons of war were forbidden, conflict long forgotten. All aspects of culture that so much as hinted at humanity’s turbulent past were removed from sight, referenced only in comparison to the far more enlightened present. Gone also is the church and teachings of a life beyond death; people grow up never fearing the end, knowing that it is the cessation of all experience and accepting it freely. And so rose the House of Death, the organisation responsible for euthanising those who reach their 60th year, with each town having its own branch. Jim is a Death Guide, one who helps placate any concerns those close to their time of death have. He is transferred from Gracchus to Egremont on the day that Norman Harper, a well known poet, is to give a final speech not long before his death. The occasion is destroyed by a crime thought lost to the past by most — murder. Harper’s cold blooded murder throws Jim into a situation that will change his life forever: guiding the killer to peace before he can be euthanised. That, however, is just the first step on a journey where he’ll learn many outlandish things, including how the world he lives in truly works.
Before I go further into the review I have to mention that the book uses a racial slur on seven occasions to describe two different characters. Seeing the word in use detracted from my reading of the story and I personally do not see the word’s usage as anyhow justified.
The story is written in the third person, with Jim being the eyes of the reader for most of it. Egremont and its surroundings are painted vividly by the author; I found myself easily able to imagine the buildings and scenery through his descriptions. Jim’s emotions are not often revealed in the narrative, but his thoughts are. They take the form of long segments about certain aspects of life, his current musings or thoughts on people. All of these are presented with little actual feeling on Jim’s part. Occasionally, additional thoughts are put in brackets when Jim questions his own thinking, though this is a rare occurrence. The lack of emotion in the text made me feel disconnected from the story right away, an onlooker with little investment in the book’s events. The writing however is clear and concise, the reader easily knowing who is speaking at any moment or what’s going on — as best as is possible for some of the events later in the book. Every character of importance in the story is distinct in some way, be it how they dress or their speech and mannerisms.
Even in the first chapter, one analogy is made exceptionally clear; the Cold War. The threat of nuclear decimation was on many peoples’ minds in 1981, that ever-present possibility filtering into many mediums of fiction. Books explored the possible nuclear wastelands of the future. Comic books created a slew of superheroes and villains whose powers were mutations or caused by exposure to radiation, the Atomic Age of comics. Films teased horrors and utopias alike, exploring the fears of the bombs that could wipe humanity off the Earth in a few minutes. Some of these reference the cold war in subtle ways, cleverly making people think about the bigger questions of their time. Deathhunter is not that subtle; the mayor of Egremont is used in chapter one as a thinly veiled mouthpiece to talk about nuclear war and by extension the Cold War. He describes how close humanity got to extinction, caused by the evil conflict calls forth within humanity in their desire to ‘beat death’. While it manages to tie into explaining how the society Jim inhabits became as it is, the way it’s done feels forced and unnatural. Other instances of describing the aftermath of nuclear devastation in the setting are slotted in more naturally, which makes me wonder why the book is so blunt right at the start.
I did not like Jim Todhunter as a protagonist. In other books I’ve read I grew invested in the main character and their situation; the story is a journey where you both discover the things that shaped them and uncover the future events which change them further. I found the Jim to be uninteresting and rather bland. I can remember little of his personality off-hand and nothing which I found endearing, feeling no empathy at any point. He’s determined to see things through when he’s committed to a course of action, willing to take the long view and try things that other death guides aren’t willing to entertain. He uses methods which those in Egremont would frown upon if they’re discovered — and they are discovered in time. Without checking the book I can remember that he wears a suit with a bow tie and has a slight stoop — none of which are referenced again in the entire story after the first two pages — but not any features about his face. That’s not to say that Jim’s character doesn’t have depth; one event that’s key to his past is revealed piecemeal as the story unfolds, cultivating a sense of mystery that makes you question Jim’s motivations. Most of the time when his past is mentioned however, it’s usually so other characters can question his way of doing things, caring far less about what he’s uncovered and more on his current task: guiding the murderer Nathan Weinburger to peace and acceptance of his transgressions, easing him to the realisation that his actions were wrong. I felt that Jim was less a character and rather a storytelling convenience; he’s an outside agent that is able to progress the plot, as he’s not so invested in the internal power struggles of the place he’s transferred to and that’s about it.
The town of Egremont itself is where most of the story takes place and as such, it is given a lot of detail. It’s written to be somewhere that looks and feels very alien yet much like our own world all at once. The initial descriptions of the town evoked within me images of ‘the city of tomorrow’, idealistic and highly stylised artistic renditions from the 50’s of what life would be like for people living on the moon. Public transport pods zipping around suspended on wires and pyramid shaped buildings made mostly of glass all had a quaint charm to them, disconnecting me from the world in how unlike the future it turned out to be. On the other hand, there are corded telephones, no publicly accessed internet and a micro-electronics factory, likely for building parts for computers. All of these things are of the time Deathhunter was written, rooting the book both in the 80’s and a fantastical future that never was. This is not the book’s fault per say; science fiction can age poorly and the older it is, the worse and more obvious it can become. There is a sterile pleasantness about Egremont however, an eerie peace and happiness which seems utterly false. Everything is joyeous and wonderful and things which have the potential to stir up ‘badness’ — memories of war, aggression and hatred — have been scrubbed from the consciousness of society. While those in power would say that those things have been relegated to distant memories, I knew better; those and similar darknesses can never entirely be driven out of human society and ignoring them doesn’t mean they don’t persist.
Jim’s character is most often conversing with Weinburger, the murderer who triggers the plot which both follow throughout the story. He’s a character that I ended up enjoying reading more than Jim. He has deeply held beliefs and a distinct personality that’s very unlike the residents of Egremont, convinced he’s working to noble goals even if they don’t mesh with the world he lives in. While he’s introduced as a fanatical monster, he’s clever with words and over the book you discover he’s a rather likable person, far more then Jim ever was to me. As the story begins, the murder almost immediately takes a backseat in the plot; the event is instead a trigger allows Jim to question Weinburger about his beliefs concerning death and his plan to capture it, the main focus of the story. Death is openly embraced as an integral part of life by the populace of Egremont and society at large. It is the relationship society has with death which is the focus of the beginning of the book, exploring if there truly is something that survives of someone after they pass. That soul exists isn’t a commonly accepted ideal in their society, but Weinburger has a very different theory about death that’s far more outlandish then anything even I could imagine. Dismissed initially as mad, Jim eventually reasons that testing the man’s theories is the best way to disprove them, bringing him closer to being at peace as well as answering a few lingering questions from his own past as well. So begin experiments and tests that propel the book into the next phase of its story, where everything you’ve come to accept flies out of the window.
Of note is that in the time since Deathhunter’s release, many similar ‘utopian’ societies have been shown in films, TV shows and books. The idea of killing off those that reach a certain age wasn’t new even in 1981, the film Logan‘s Run having been released five years before it. The two things share little in common barring that fact.
Slowly, the book eases the reader into accepting that all is not what it seems in Egremont. What Jim knows to be true is put at odds with the surreal opinions of Weinburger as their tests continue. I’d been anticipating since the start that something like this would happen; discovering the ‘truth’ of a setting is a familiar concept in fiction, in part because the back of the book hinted at a big plot twist. I prepared myself for Jim to learn that the house of death had everything wrong and more importantly, that society is no better then it was before the radical changes it went through. I expected people would not accept what they’d discovered, trying to suppress the truth and preserve the way things are. The book focuses mostly on the testing however, Jim wanting to learn more about the revelations that he and Weinburger discover. I still didn’t feel that invested however, still looking on as an observer much like Jim does during the initial tests. As they go on the tests got more outlandish, theories more farfetched. There was no true feeling of threat against either of them at that point, the story plodding on even as other characters try to intervene. There’s no real time constraint either even when one is mentioned. It’s only when their curiosity goes beyond the first layer of mystery that things change, dramatically.
Early on in the tests there’s a definite element of the fantastical; Jim is puzzled and yet curious by what he and Weinburger uncover, both natural reactions. The middle section however pushes the experiments further into the surreal, throwing the reader deep into the strange and alien, bombarding and bewildering all at the same time. Their travels take them beyond physical confines and barriers, transporting them to realms beyond our own that almost defy explanation and yet don’t; the descriptions are oddly exact for things so peculiar, leaving little to the imagination when more should’ve been. Some of the imagery is truly horrifying to picture and all of it is odd, building an eerie and scary world beyond our own where they chase the truth, fluttering away from them as fast as it can. This pursuit leads Jim and Weinburger deeper into madness but neither perceive it as such by that point, rarely questioning apart from deciding what to do next. I would have been terrified at what they saw and experienced, making their neutrality to it distancing. These periods of strangeness are interspersed with spaces of relative normality, the threat of danger implied even if I didn’t feel it. The conversation between the unlikely pairing had shifted at this point, far more at ease when they’d once been distrusting and wary. These islands of familiar settings and goings-on felt rare despite little time passing in Egremont between them, the journeys into the strange unknowns of beyond taking up many pages.
At this point I’d like to talk about something that pervades the book at all points, sex. Jim thinks on sex and sexual acts in one way or another at semi-regular intervals. Other times sexual imagery is encountered in the fantastical portions of the book. In all instances it’s written about in very exact detail, each one almost tangential to what’s going on in the story. Sexuality isn’t obviously pervasive in the setting but it’s most definitely there, in Jim’s mind if nowhere else. Jim also has a keen eye for people in relationships and by extension, having a lot of sex. He even has a dream about it almost as outlandish as the strange experiments he and Weinburger partake in. Although a part of Jim’s character, the moments where these descriptions appeared felt jarring to the narrative, disappearing as quickly as they’d arrived.
Jarring is a good word to describe my feelings about the final part of the book. You may have noticed that I haven’t been discussing a general theme beyond that of death and the cold war. That’s because I don’t think there is a defined theme apart from that, save perhaps that nothing is as it seems. Even when things jump off into the realms of the sometimes eldritch in the middle of the book there’s a cohesion to the story; the twists are slow and measured, the reveals gradual. This all changes at the very end, the culmination of Jim and Weinburger’s fervent efforts to uncover the ultimate truth. I honestly didn’t know what to expect but somehow the book managed to surprise me, leaving me shaking my head in disbelief at what was happening. The end makes sense within the narrative and yet doesn’t all at once, fresh information dumped upon the reader in heavy blocks of text spanning multiple pages. Even though everything is being turned upside down, I found that I didn’t really care either way; throughout the writing I’d failed to connect with Jim but hoped that as the story progressed I’d begin to empathise with him. This didn’t happen however. I didn’t feel invested and so what happened to him felt inconsequential. If anything, I cared more for Weinburger and his fate but you so rarely get to see his point of view. Not even a brief period of intense action and tension unseen until then could pique my interest in the plot. The only curiosity I had about the ending was if it would outdo itself in the few chapters remaining and unfortunately it manages to do so. While the book does a good job at the end of explaining all of the many wild turns Deathhunter goes down, it does so by means of yet more plot twists, piled on top of one another until they’re compounded into a single entity that left me tired of the narrative. I love being surprised by the direction a story takes, especially when the change enriches the reading experience; this book took that idea too far.
Deathhunter is not a book without redeeming features but for me they were few and far between. I didn’t enjoy the main character and the plot managed to both be predictable and unpredictable at the same time, both in a bad way. It having been written a long time ago being the possible reason does not excuse the lack of enjoyment I got from reading it. That’s a shame, as I believe there was the potential for a good story which got marred with over complication and long periods of non-significant weirdness. That I didn’t even want to know if a sequel had been written is a bad sign for me and at times, I struggled to find motivation to read on. I would not recommend this book if someone asked about it, an object of the past to be forgotten as the people of Egremont do with their own. As for how the cover related to the story, I’ll leave that to your imagination; it’s something that the book fails to do well.