THE SEEP by Chana Porter (BOOK REVIEW)
“HERE’S OUR IDEA, TRINA, ABOUT WHY HUMANS ARE SO FOCUSED ON THE PAST AND THE FUTURE, ALL AT ONCE. IT’S ABOUT LEARNING! THAT’S THE GREAT GIFT OF LINEAR TIME! YOU CAN LOOK BACK ON YOUR EXPERIENCES IN THE PAST AND USE THEM TO MAKE CHOICES FOR THE FUTURE. TIME IS EMBODIED LEARNING! THAT’S WHY MEMORY EXISTS! WHY FAILURES ARE NEVER TRULY FAILURES, AND MISTAKES ARE ALWAYS GLORIOUS! NO MATTER WHAT, NO MATTER WHAT, NO MATTER WHAT, NO MATTER WHAT!”
Chana Porter’s debut novel The Seep (2021) marks the emergence of a crucial new voice in speculative fiction. The Seep is a striking work of utopian fiction, a work that delves deep into what it means to be human in a world transformed, and the love and grief and sadness and difficulty that still come with the human condition even after all our needs are met. Porter’s beautiful, dream-like prose conveys a thoroughly imaginative world transfigured by benevolent alien invasion. The novel came out with Soho Press in the US last year, and now Titan have released an expanded edition in the UK, with an added exclusive short story set in the same world that gives the story an added perspective.
The Seep is set in the near future, when an alien entity known as The Seep has invaded Earth and transfigured the world. Capitalism has fallen; war, famine, illness and poverty have been eradicated; The Seep can provide everyone with anything they can imagine. The Seep connects everything together and can perform miraculous wonders via Seeptech. The Seep wants to merge with humanity, but also respects humanity’s boundaries – interaction with The Seep must be with consent, and across the world there are Compounds where people who wish to live in the old ways can be isolated from The Seep’s presence. The novel tells the story of Trina FastHorse Goldberg-Oneka, a fifty-year-old Native American Jewish trans woman. Trina and her wife Deeba remember what life was like before The Seep but have been living happily together in this new world, until Deeba decides to be reborn as a baby. Trina is devastated, and is in the middle of an alcoholic binge when she meets a young boy recently escaped from a Compound who falls under the wing of charismatic jerk and performance artist Horizon Line. Trina goes on a quest to rescue the boy from both The Seep and the self-serving attention of Horizon Line, and in the process both she and The Seep discover profound truths about grieving, love, and what it means to be human.
The emotional core of The Seep is about love, grief, and the difficulty of moving on. Even in a world where everyone’s needs are provided for and death is largely opt-in, the experiences of grief and loss are a universal part of being human. Trina has her world turned upside down by her wife’s decision to be born again, and as much as The Seep wants to heal all wounds, in order for her to grow and move on, and get to the stage where she can accept the death of her mother, Trina has to process her grief in her own time, in her own way. Even in a world full of technology so powerful it verges on the magical, there is no cure but time for a broken heart. Porter expertly portrays Trina’s journey through grief, and her resistance to The Seep’s desire to help her, and her grumpiness at living in a perfect world whilst she is suffering, are thoroughly relatable, and her journey to self-realisation and inner peace is moving and deftly told. In the end, it is the boy who winds up unknowingly saving Trina by providing her with an excuse to confront her loss. The extra short story in the Titan edition is told from the boy’s point of view. It adds valuable insight into how the Compounds are run, and also shows us how the boy’s journey is shaped by his interactions with Trina, even though the two of them only meet the once. It enhances the original story’s exploration of the unexpected ways in which our interactions with other people shape our lives.
As well as a moving and profound exploration of grief, The Seep is also a startlingly imaginative work of speculative fiction. The world transformed by The Seep is given a dream-like quality by Porter’s gorgeous prose. The transformation of human and animal bodies, and the merging together of consciousness, could be the source of profoundly unsettling body horror, but in Porter’s hands achieves a strange transcendent beauty. Porter’s novel engages frankly with ideas around gender, sexuality and identity. One of the things that makes the world of The Seep a true utopia rather than a dystopia, which so many utopian visions eventually become, is the openness with which The Seep accepts all forms of human sexuality and gender identity, as well as race and ethnicity. However, as Trina herself points out, the fact that The Seep has come to everyone does not erase the lived experiences of people shaped by race before the coming of The Seep. This is something The Seep itself has difficulty with as much as the concept of going through grief – as aliens with no bodies, both embodiment and the concept of learning over time are alien to them. Trina is horrified to learn that Horizon Line is an old white man who has simply been wearing the face of a black lover who died before the coming of The Seep. She calls him out on it:
“Our bodies may be containers, but they still carry specific histories. And these histories are still meaningful. Of course The Seep doesn’t understand that – they’re amorphous beings with no physical bodies! But I won’t let you stand here, looking like that and tell me that my history is interchangeable with yours.”
This is effectively contrasted with the difficulties Trina faced as a trans woman in her life before The Seep:
“But Trina had labored for this body! She’d fought and kicked and clawed to have her insides match her outsides, and now people changed their faces as easily as getting a haircut.”
The novel’s ability to explore these ideas with nuance is part of what makes The Seep such a rousing and successful experiment in utopian fiction.
Powerful, beautiful, moving and uncompromising, The Seep is a wonderfully exciting new work of speculative fiction, and all the more so for coming from a new voice in the genre. Titan have done us a huge service by making it available in the UK in its expanded form. I keenly await to see what Chana Porter does next.