Hitchers by Will McIntosh

Hitchers_Press_rv01.inddTitle: Hitchers
Author: Will McIntosh
Published: 2 October 2012
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Genre: fantasy
Rating: 5/10

Finn Darby’s wife and grandfather died on the same day. While Finn misses his beloved Lorena, he doesn’t really miss his grandfather Tom – a tight-fisted, alcoholic, racist, abusive old bastard. Tom Darby created Toy Shop, a long-running newspaper comic strip, and refused to ever let Finn – an aspiring cartoonist – have anything to do with it.

But Finn went against his grandfather’s dying demand, resurrected the strip, updating it for a modern audience, creating new characters and selling merchandising rights. It’s more successful than ever. Most of the money goes to his Finn’s long-suffering grandmother but Finn has become fairly wealthy too.

Then, after a terrorist attack kills half a million people in Atlanta, Finn starts blurting out things in a strange, disturbing voice that he can’t control. Eventually he realises that his grandfather is speaking through him, and that the terrorist attack has somehow allowed the dead to return by inhabiting the bodies of the living. At first they can only blurt random words and phrases, but it’s not long before the hitchers’ influence begins to grow. Finn’s grandfather wants Toy Shop back, but it’s not all bad. Finn quickly realises that he can contact his dead wife, and he finds her in the body of a waitress named Summer.

Together with Summer and an ageing British rocker named Mick Mercury (a combination of Mick Jagger and Freddie Mercury, I assume), Finn tries to understand the hitchers and the afterlife they come from. It looks like they’re here to stay, but can they be allowed to?

Hitchers is a quick, light read, but even if that’s what you’re looking for, you might not appreciate it in this book, especially if the ideas in the plot are what intrigued you. On the one hand, the story incorporates a lot of serious ideas and situations, but it’s mostly handled in a superficial and sometimes amateurish way that wastes the premise. Also, it features Toy Shop cartoons that all suck.

Let’s take the existence of hitchers, to start with. They’re all people who either really, really didn’t want to be dead or have unfinished business. Finn’s grandfather was vicious, Lorena incredibly vivacious, and Mick’s hitcher has… actual unfinished business. It’s pretty boring, but the ghosts’ existence is more important to the plot than their reasons for hanging around, so fine. What bugged me more was that everything the characters need to understand about the ghosts and the afterlife come from one book. Summer is a hippy who just so happens to have this book – a tome by an Indian mystic named J. Krishnapuma. And Krishnapuma is spot-on about everything. It’s so very lucky for everyone in the kind of plot device that should be reserved for children’s adventure stories.

The situations that the hitchers create are much more serious though, and McIntosh plays around with some interesting and disturbing ideas. The ghosts are basically always present in the bodies they inhabit. It’s like looking out silently through someone’s eyes. After a while, instead of just blurting out a few words, they take full possession of the body. Neither the ghost nor its host can control when the ghost speaks, when it takes over the body, or for how long. During possession, the body’s owner becomes the viewer.

The issues of privacy and control are the most obvious ones here, and Finn’s situation is particularly scary because his grandfather is a thoroughly hateful bastard. Finn’s relationship with Lorena raises a different set of disturbing problems.

Of course, Finn can only speak to Lorena through someone else’s body. A body that Lorena is involuntarily hijacking. Finn and Summer become friends, so Summer is at least understanding and co-operative when it comes to giving Finn a chance to spend time with his wife, but this quickly becomes far more complicated. For example, when Lorena takes over Summer’s body, they kiss and touch in physically intimate ways that Summer hasn’t consented to but experiences because she’s still inside her body. Then, Finn finds himself increasingly attracted to Summer, which Lorena picks up on because she’s watching all the time.

It’s a weird love triangle with two bodies and three people (four, counting Finn’s grandfather, although he doesn’t care about the romance), but it’s one of the issues that I think was handled too lightly. Yes, the characters agonise over it, but it feels a bit superficial. At the end, the whole thing is dealt with in a way that I found far too easy and dismissive.

The plot as a whole suffers from a similar problem. For a story featuring a terrorist attack that kills half a million people, uncontrolled possession of the living by the dead, some very bleak depictions of the afterlife, and personal struggles to deal with grief, Hitchers is just too relaxed and simplistic even when it’s supposed to be serious.

The Krishnapuma book that explains everything the main characters need to know about the hitchers and the afterlife is one example of this. Finn’s grandfather is another – technically Finn got rich by stealing his work, but Tom is such a vile person that you could never muddy the moral waters by taking his side. McIntosh also avoids the most interesting complexities of hitcher possession. There’s only one glimpse of a cross-gender hitcher. Except for Tom enjoying having Finn’s young, healthy body, there’s nothing about the experience of having a body notably different from your original one (male/female, child/adult, able/disabled, black/white, etc.). And although Finn, Mick and Summer are always listening to news reports about the hitchers, there’s no mention of anyone seeking out their loved ones as Finn has. This is the best thing about the hitchers, but also the most morally conflictual because of the way it affects relationships. Why then, is this most interesting of plot points restricted to Finn, Lorena and Summer?

In terms of the broader social effects of the terrorist attack and the hitchers, there’s one scene that stands out for me as the book’s failure to deal with difficult problems. After a night out, Finn and Summer are attacked and nearly murdered by religious fanatics who believe that people with hitchers are evil. Afterwards, this problem disappears from the plot, and Finn, Mick and Summer carry on as usual, as if there weren’t psychos trying to murder them in the streets.

At the end, the main plot is resolved far too quickly and conveniently, giving the impression that the author had just gotten tired of the whole thing. And honestly, it doesn’t feel like a story that’s worth your time. So much weight has been lifted from it that you feel like you’re getting something lesser than it should be. Easy reads are great, but not when it feels like an easy way out.

The World of the End by Ofir Touché Gafla

The World of the EndTitle: The World of the End
Author: Ofir Touché Gafla
Translation: from Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg
Published:  First published 2004, Tor edition published 25 June 2013
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: mystery, fantasy
Rating: 7/10

Ben Mendelsshon is a righter. In intellectual circles he’s known as an epilogist. What he does is ‘right’ other writers’ work by write endings for them. But the one ending Ben cannot handle is the death of his wife Marian in a freak accident. The couple were deeply in love and had what seemed like the perfect marriage. Unwilling to give up on it, Ben commits suicide in the hope of being reunited with Marian.

The afterlife he finds himself in is neither heaven nor hell. It’s just another world – the Other World – where all the dead keep on living in something similar to a standard, westernised city life, with a few decidedly odd differences, like the fact that there are no clothes so everyone walks around naked. Each individual is given an apartment based on the date and time they died, but when Ben goes to Marian’s apartment, he learns that if was left abandoned.

Desperate to find his wife but clueless as to how to do it, Ben enlists the help of Mad Hop, a passionate detective (whose nickname is based on his favourite fictional detectives – Marple, Dalgliesh, Holmes and Poirot). While they track down Marian, interlinking narratives play out in the world of the living. A famous artist who was once asked to paint Marian’s portrait has a stroke and ends up in a coma. His wife Bessie remains hopeful that he will wake up, while a socially dysfunctional nurse tries to convince Bessie to switch off the life support, as she does with all patients in that condition. The nurse, Anne, has fallen deeply in love with Ben, after seeing him in the gym on her daily walk home from work, and his unexplained absence upsets her.

In a more romantic love story, a man and woman begin an online romance based on their shared love of Salman Rushdie’s writing. Inexplicably, the woman is named Marian and recently divorced her bastard of a husband. Her presence is just as perplexing for the reader as her absence is for Ben. Is Marian dead or alive? Nothing quite makes sense.

It’s a convoluted mystery with loads of characters (I’ve mentioned fewer than half of them), but the story is actually fairly easy to follow. Gafla starts out with a bunch of seemingly disparate narrative threads and slowly begins to weave them together into a story that’s much bigger than it seemed at first. Ben’s search for Marian is still at the heart of it, but other characters’ lives and actions play into it in myriad ways that only the reader – who sees all the POVs – has the scope to appreciate.

It avoids being confusing at least partly because Gafla writes vivid, memorable characters. It’s clearly one of the things he loves most about writing fiction, and one of his greatest skills in the craft. His characters all have their own stories and quirks that are interesting in themselves, full of love, loathing, humour, horror, weirdness and wonder. So, when a character suddenly pops up several chapters after they were first introduced, they tend to be easily recognisable even if you’ve forgotten their names.

Gafla’s not quite so good when it comes to world-building though. Compared to our world, The Other World is a utopia of peace, technological advancement and immortality but it wouldn’t stand up to much scrutiny. The enforced nudity supposedly makes people “infinitely more trusting, developing a reputable, honest society where costumes, masks, and other props are unnecessary”, but it seems impractical. I’d want shoes and sports bras at the very least. And since people still put on plays and other forms of entertainment, what’s wrong with costumes? Also, it’s very fucking odd, but it seems like everyone adjusts to it far too easily after living in a world that requires clothing.

Another world-building issue is the godget – a remote control that each person carries on a strap around their neck. The godget has six buttons, each of which is used to control some aspect of your existence – making it your favourite time of day, effecting your preferred mode of sleep (dreams, no dreams, number of hours), providing updates on the previous world. The way it works is really stupid. For example, button two controls your personal climate, so you click the button once for snowy, twice for cold but not rainy, three times for cold and rainy, and so on with the final option at twelve clicks. How does anyone remember how all these options? A technologically advanced world like this one would have come up with a much more user-friendly device. And if they can give you recordings of your ENTIRE life to watch, how can they still be using video tapes? It’s clearly stated that the Other World advances with the world of the living, so there’s absolutely no excuse for tapes.

However, I would say that you shouldn’t worry too much about the world-building. The World of the End is the kind of novel where that particular lapse in logic can be frowned at and then shrugged off because it’s not the focus of the book. The Other World is there to allow a certain story to play out, rather than as a serious speculation of how the afterlife might function (although it’s an infinitely better idea than heaven or hell).

What you do get then, are ideas on what kind of life you might lead in the Other World, because it’s really just another kind of life. Without currency or any need to work, people tend to do things because they’re passionate about them, like Mad Hop who has “always investigated for the right reasons, unadulterated curiosity. Nothing satisfies me more than the clean annihilation of question marks.” Famous artists, writers and musicians continue to produce new work, often using the technology of later centuries. People can carry their obsessions from one world to the next, they can change with the times (the technology of the present is available to all the dead of the past, for example), they can opt for eternal sleep if they can’t handle eternity. And face with eternity, people’s relationships have changed. Ben has to face up to the possibility that Marian might not want to be with him anymore, since death nullified their marriage vows. And if he finds her, they will eventually part ways anyway.

Admittedly, these ideas aren’t explored in great depth because it would detract from the main story and there just isn’t enough room. As you might have noticed, there’s a lot going on here, and later in the novel there’s also a lot of musing on Ben’s predicament. There’s a metafictional touch when Mad Hop suggests that Ben’s anguish comes not from the fact that he hasn’t found Marian but from the possibility that he might not find her – he’s a man who crafted endings for a living, and he assumed his suicide would either lead him to Marian (a happy ending) or oblivion (the end to all his stories). He did not imagine that Marian could go missing while life went on in new ways. I quite liked this and some of the other little musings by various characters, but this is also where the books takes a turn for the worse.

At the start, it’s a tightly-written, clever story. After the halfway mark, it starts to unravel. It gets a bit long-winded, the living-world narratives keep expanding, and the search for Marian is too unstructured. Mad Hop doesn’t seem like a particularly good detective. He doesn’t do much investigating himself; most of the time he shows Ben investigative paths, like sending him to speak to dead relatives that Marian may have contacted. Then, there are times when Ben happens to mention key information that he didn’t know would be useful. Each time, Mad Hop gets angry at Ben for holding back, but Ben doesn’t hold back; he just doesn’t know what’s important because he doesn’t know how the Other World works. It should be Mad Hop’s responsibility to ask the right questions.

I was starting to worry that this initially wonderful book would leave me disappointed, but I was happy with the way it ended. It’s not exactly a nice, neat ending, but by this point in the book you should know not to expect one. What Gafla does throughout the novel is give us a sense of human life with all its complications, absurdities, joys and disappointments, and the ending is no different. He never descends into dreary realism – on the contrary, so much of this novel is totally bizarre – but he tends to balance happy resolutions with bad ones and non-existent ones. I quite like it and I’m glad I read this one. It’s something very different for both mystery and spec fic readers.