The Body Scout
(Orbit / Hachette , 2021)
Let’s start by stating the obvious: Lincoln Michel is an enormously talented writer, and one of the things he does exceptionally well is blend genres. I say that because The Body Scout is a mashup of cyberpunk, noir detective novel, and literary fiction centered on the premise of what it means to be human, and well worth the advance buzz it has already received. It’s set in an unfortunately all-too-plausible near-future, one where Fortune 500 pharmaceutical companies are so beloved that they now run professional sports teams; where people readily modify their bodies with all sorts of implants and augmentations as a means of surviving the debilitating effects of a deteriorating climate and rampant pollution; and where the use of cybernetic body parts—bionic limbs, in other words—are so commonplace that they come across as outdated, horrifically passé. The Body Scout is impressive in its attention to detail, for almost everything about this world has been so thoroughly fleshed out that even throwaway lines contain a wealth of information. And in this sense, one can say that although this book owes as much of a debt to William Gibson as it does to Dashiell Hammett, if anything, the influence that perhaps looms largest here is Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s Transmetropolitan. Much like that legendary comic, Michel presents a hard-boiled, hard-wired NYC that’s rendered down to its minutia. However, unlike in a comic, where excessive visual ornamentation is sometimes necessary to keep a reader’s attention (and often makes for a fun re-read), some of the more interesting, descriptive tidbits mentioned in the novel (just how many states are left in the Remaining States of America? And exactly how large is One China?) end up going unaddressed in such a tantalizing manner that makes hope a sequel is on the way.
But with that said, here are the particulars. The Body Scout is a mystery, so I’m loath to give away too much of the plot, but in its opening pages, J.J. Zunz, star player for the Monsanto Mets, gets mysteriously, brutally murdered, his body literally dissolving into a puddle of goo on live, national TV. Thus, it’s up to Kobo, Zunz’s adoptive brother and former baseball pitcher in the now-defunct Cyber League, to find out who killed Zunz and why. To say Kobo is down and out is an understatement. He recently lost his job as a scout for the Yankees after letting a promising young scientist get “recruited” by another team. (because unlike our present-day scouts, these baseball scouts not only search for potential players, they also attempt to recruit scientists to their respective baseball teams, where the scientists work under a form of indentured servitude.) Kobo is also millions in debt because of his addiction to body modifications, or as they’re called in the parlance of the novel, “upgrades.” A childhood trauma that left Kobo buried under rubble and shattered his right arm causes him to permanently yearn to transcend the confines of his physical self. Or as he so aptly puts it:
I was trapped under the jagged mound for hours. It felt like years. I couldn’t see anything. Could barely breathe. And I couldn’t get out. My arm was pinned down by steel and concrete in the dark. My own body keeping me trapped. When I screamed, dirt ran down my throat… All I could think about was trying to escape my own body. How my own flesh was killing me, pinning me there. How I’d never let myself be that helpless again.
And really, it’s the feeling of helplessness, the feeling that he should have been able to prevent his brother’s death—or at the very least avenge it—which fuels most of Kobo’s actions throughout the work.
Such a wealth of detail, information, and plot-propelling action make The Body Scout a wickedly clever, fast-paced, entertaining read, while, I think, sacrificing a bit of character introspection. That’s not to say that every literary novel must or should be packed to the gills with dime-store philosophizing, but in a novel where the main character is defined by trauma, a turn towards descriptive passages conveying an intensity of emotional depth would have perhaps balanced some of that propulsive action. I say that because during those spare moments when Michel chooses to have his characters plumb their interior lives, he writes it beautifully about it. Take, for example, the following passage, where Kobo describes how he feels when he upgrades:
It’s hard to describe what it’s like to upgrade the first time. To really upgrade. Not to tweak yourself or take a course of steroids over months. But to change yourself in a day. To suck in the anesthesia and wake up a new person. You feel like your veins are filled with light instead of blood. You simply don’t have a new limb or implant. You have new senses. New vibrations. I woke up that day on the surgical table, a gleaming new arm sutured to my shoulder, and I was expanded.
Passages such as this, which explore the implications of transformation, transhumanism, and the desire to be something other than what one is, deepen the novel immeasurably. And I wish there had been even more, more moments that address issues such as body dysmorphic disorder and all that it entails—the thornier psychological and existential issues that would naturally emerge in an age of on-demand body modification. A bit more of that, I aver, would have made The Body Scout a modern-day masterpiece. Still, this novel is one hell of a mercilessly entertaining ride, one that I can’t recommend enough. Dear reader, you’re in for a treat.