“In being robbed of our deaths, we are robbed of our lives.”
These words in the prologue of Rachel Heng’s new novel Suicide Club (Henry Holt, 2018) plunge the reader into a world in which the genetically (and financially) blessed live for centuries, and immortality is within humans’ grasp. It’s become the ultimate pursuit of society to live forever, but, as the nameless man in the opening scene prods us to ask – at what cost?
The allure of speculative fiction is that the world isn’t very far from the one we know, and is therefore easier to imagine for people like me who get lost in the world-building of hard sci-fi or fantasy. In Suicide Club, protagonist Lea Kirino’s world doesn’t seem too far off from what a wealthy New Yorker’s life might look like today: lavish parties, glassy high-rises, a preoccupation with youth and power. Even (non-medical) technology doesn’t seem to have changed all that much – the characters carry tablets and phones, drink vitamin-infused cocktails and “eat” meals known as Nutripaks. Many people live such a life at this very moment, but in Lea’s New York of the future, the wealthy and genetically blessed class have taken the idea of optimal lifestyle to an extreme, and dragged the rest of society along with it.
The result is an eerie global obsession with achieving immortality. Babies are tested to determine the number of years they could live with the right “enhancements” – skin, blood, and organ – which are available at a cost (hence the wealthy live the longest). When we meet Lea, the world is on the brink of the Third Wave, when some will achieve immortality. And she’s at the head of the line. A successful trader on the New York Exchange (which now deals in enhancements), living in a fancy apartment with her perfect specimen of a fiancé Todd, and turning 100 years old as the novel opens, Lea has drunk the Third Wave Koolaid – sorry, Nutripak. But there is much more to Lea than we see in the opening pages.
Lea’s mother, a Nigerian woman named Uju with a fierce love of life, was an early adopter of ehancements and following government-issued lifestyle directives, but didn’t have the right genetic makeup to live as long as Lea. Her father, a Japanese man named Kaito, disappeared when Lea was twelve. She had a brother, too, and as the story unwinds itself from the defining moment at the start of the book in which Lea spots Kaito on a busy street on her way to work, we learn more about her family and the dark corners within Lea herself.
Lea’s story threads together with that of Anja, a Swedish musician whose mother was also and early and enthusiastic adopter of enhancements, but because of financial shortcomings that led to poor medical treatment, she’s become “misaligned” – basically a vegetable, technically unable to die but no longer alive.
As Lea, Anja, Kaito, and the secondary characters navigate their way through a world that ostensibly values nothing more highly than life – but only without death – the reader is presented with elegant existential questions folded into a fairly thrilling plot.
Lea pictures herself as a third-wave Lifer “stonger, glowing, invincible. The blood running through her veins a liquid life force… her skin, dewy and impossibly supple, yet impervious, impenetrable. She, a goddess. Nothing would ever hurt her again.” Yet immediately after a phone call with her father, her conviction in the Third Wave starts to crack: “…it almost felt as if she did not exist, as if time did not exist.” The braiding of time into identity is at the core of the novel in many ways, and here it is palpable. Heng’s story shows us, through Lea and Anja especially, “the violence of what it mean[s] to live forever.”
The premise of Suicide Club is riveting in itself, and the prose is engrossing, shot through with some stellar descriptive sentences. The pacing steadily builds; the climax is challenging and gripping. It’s a fast read despite its 352 pages. While I do think the narrative could have been tightened a little, I found the complexities of Lea’s character in particular to be fascinating and unsettling, and if there’s one thing I always want in a story it’s complicated characters.
However, I found myself disappointed in certain aspects of this future society. It seems to be much more racially diverse, with monoethnic people the exception rather than the rule. Race and class seem much less intertwined than in today’s America, if at all. So why are all of the characters cisgender and straight? Even Jiang, Lea’s assistant, who is clearly coded as gay, is revealed to have a wife at the end. The clothes are still gendered, and it’s implied that the dominant religion is still Christianity. This story could have still easily been written as is with a few minor changes that acknowledge the existence of people other than straight cis people. This is a bias I will always have, but until LGBTQIA+ people stop being erased from this world and all the imagined worlds, I won’t not notice it and ask more of today’s writers.
That said, Suicide Club is an engrossing read that I would recommend to anyone looking for a speculative fiction character drama that challenges the reader to contemplate life, death, and humanity.
Note: I received an ARC from Henry Holt Books in exchange for an honest review; opinions are my own.