Ivo Stourton – The Happier Dead

ivostourton-thehappierdeadThe Great Spa sits on the edge of London, a structure visible from space. The power of Britain on the world stage rests in its monopoly on ‘The Treatment’, a medical procedure which transforms the richest and most powerful into a state of permanent physical youth. The Great Spa is the place where the newly young immortals go to revitalise their aged souls.

In this most secure of facilities, a murder of one of the guests threatens to destabilise the new order, and DCI Oates of the Metropolitan police is called in to investigate. In a single day, Oates must unravel the secrets behind the Treatment and the long-ago disappearance of its creator, passing through a London riven with disorder and corruption. As a night of widespread rioting takes hold of the city, he moves towards a climax which could lead to the destruction of the Great Spa, his own ruin, and the loss of everything he holds most dear.

A science-fictional crime novel set in a near-future London. I was sold on reading The Happier Dead, novelist and play-wright Ivo Stourton’s first SF novel, by those elements alone. Add some fascinating thought exercises about immortality, memory, and morality to that mix and The Happier Dead was a novel that was equal parts riveting action and thought-provoking ideas. Although the ending bothered me somewhat in its sudden shift away from our protagonist Oates, I very much enjoyed this book, both for its story and its prose. 

The Happier Dead is set in a near-future London, but it remains unclear how near a future exactly. Some of the political elements, such as a war in Syria, seem to have their roots in the now and taking the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in consideration, I’d guess that means it couldn’t be more than fifteen or twenty years in the future? Then again the building of the Dome and the perfecting of the Treatment in such a relatively short time seems implausible. The timespan doesn’t truly matter to the plot and it isn’t clearly mentioned anywhere, but I found myself distracted throughout the narrative when coming across historical references, trying to use them to pinpoint the time the novel is set in. Oates’s city is also very much a recognisable London, which would probably feel quite familiar to its current residents.

I found it interesting to see how the London Riots of 2011 are starting to seep into fiction. The Happier Dead isn’t the first book I’ve read in the past few months where their echoes can be clearly heard. The riots in the book mirror and increase the narrative tension. They are also the result of the ever-increasing societal divide which happens when you have a rich upper class that will live forever and keep accumulating more of the wealth and resources in society. Immortality has two large problems in The Happier Dead. One is its impact on society, in terms of societal stagnation and the shifting wealth/power distribution, which breeds discontent ends in the riots. The other is the emotional effect of living forever, of having to deal not just with many losses, but also the ennui that sets in, the feeling the new-young have that there is nothing more and no new experiences out there anymore. Stourton names it the Tithonus effect, after the myth of the goddess Eos and her mortal lover.

The problems caused by the Tithonus effect and the Treatment and the possible solutions to these problems, which seem to be grounded in memory, also raise moral questions. How fair is it to those less privileged that they are essentially oppressed by the new-young? If new-young get to wipe their slate clean and memory is the North needle of our moral compass and a necessity for a proper functioning conscience, what will this do to society in a moral sense? What about guilt and repentance? Will it equal consequence-free sin and crime? Similarly, the way Dreem – a sort of subliminal advertising which is transmitted through some kind of electrical pulse and affects people by stimulating their memories – works also raises a number of moral questions. Questions Stourton never really addresses, unlike the seemingly larger questions mentioned before. However, I found Dreem far more insidiously creepy than the Tithonus problem as for some reason it felt far more plausible and invasive.

Usually my reviews are very much character-focused, but in The Happier Dead the ideas and the whodunit were far more compelling to me than the characters. Our protagonist Oates is a fascinating character, who is grounded by his active duty experience and his love for his family. I really liked him and his history. However, while the rest of the characters aren’t exactly one-dimensional, the ones as well-developed as Oates are few and far between; The Happier Dead is far more idea-driven than character-driven. Stourton’s writing was great. He creates some beautiful turns of phrase and combines these with very visual scenes. There is a climactic scene at the end of the book, which would look awesome on a big screen. Then again, given Stourton’s play-writing chops this shouldn’t be surprising.

The Happier Dead is a book filled with fascinating concepts and hard moral questions. I found myself thinking about the book when I had to put it aside and after I finished it, pondering the dilemmas Oates faces and how the mystery would unravel. The book combines thought-provoking themes and exciting action and delivers it with a neat bow on top. Stourton’s first step onto the speculative fiction stage was an enjoyable one and I hope he’ll give us many more encores in the future.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.