Review: The limits of the human body
“I feel stiff. Plastic. Unused…. Do you know what I mean?” So says one of the main characters at the start of The Body Scout. Careful readers will take note of this complaint, which turns out to be more apropos than one could ever envision.
In this debut novel, Lincoln Michel explores the limits of what it means to be human through a future in which companies tempt consumers with upgrades—new arms, organs and more. While this is a book about consciousness and creation, these topics are explored through a story about America’s national pastime: baseball. The main character, Kobo, is a cyborg scout for a professional baseball team controlled by a biopharma company. But unlike scouts as we know them today, who seek out players, he also scouts for scientists whose work can help teams upgrade their players to the best condition. The companies that own baseball teams earn huge profits through selling upgrades and merchandise—and strong-arm scientists into employment against their will.
The Body Scout explores what it means to create life, when it begins and the responsibility that families have to one another.
Kobo once played baseball himself, when humans with cyber enhancements were allowed to be part of a league, and he has $2 million of medical debt. He is plagued by a pair of threatening debt collectors, who follow him until their death. Kobo grew up underground in what is known as South Crown Heights, and his parents were killed in a tunnel collapse. Neighbors took him in and raised him like a son—his adopted brother, JJ Zunz, becomes a star baseball player for the Monsanto Mets and the model on which a startling new program is based. “People didn’t like being tricked into thinking something fake was real,” we are told. But in this novel, nothing is as it seems. The villain behind this spectacle, the owner of the Monsanto Mets, is known as The Mouth. His bravado is apparent from the start. “You ever heard of Einstein? He was a big deal, back in the day,” he says at one point. “If he was alive, he’d be working for me. If I’d let him.”
The Body Scout explores what it means to create life, when it begins and the responsibility that families have to one another. In this version of society, “much of the economy had been replaced by drones, algorithms, and zootech pack animals. The megarich considered employing humans to be a sort of charity. Or maybe it was simply more satisfying to order around people than robots.”
Much of the action in this mystery is driven by Kobo’s love for Zunz, who he believes is missing or dead, and by his growing connection to his recently discovered niece. Zunz is less concerned about Kobo, it seems, as he is caught up in the excitement of the project that he stars in: the World Series.
Cue the “Diseased Edenists.” They are an activist sect of the Edenists, purists who believe life is sacred and so oppose the economy of artificial upgrades as unnatural. According to the Diseased Edenists, “We don’t think it’s enough to only avoid upgrades. To us, the problem is the corporate control. That’s proprietary software running your arm. Brand-name chemicals in your system.”
Upgrades aren’t the only feature of this society that Edenists object to; Gerald, a Diseased Edenist leader, says of biopharma companies, “They create whole life-forms without care or thought. They’re gods who care nothing about their creations. They’re impure. We want to bring the impurity to the world.” As a form of protest, the Diseased Edenists release zootech (creatures that humans have created) with capacities including poison into crowds, wreaking havoc. “The biopharma and government deform life and then sell new creatures as easily as they sell shirts or cans of soda. We show them there are repercussions to messing with nature.”
Stripped of the extremism of the Diseased Edenists, the Edenist philosophy has much that Catholics will recognize, including a profound respect for life and belief in one creator. But perhaps the Edenists go too far in their repudiation of technology, seeming to prefer their bodies to be “pure” than to be healed with medical science. While The Body Scout is a sci-fi novel, some of the issues the novel grapples with are near on the horizon as advances in artificial intelligence, medicine and the metaverse bring us closer to the time we may have similar upgrades to choose from.
The Body Scout is a thrilling, thought-provoking adventure about capitalism and loyalty, trust and greed, temptation and fulfillment.
But to put the quandary in context, Gerald points out: “Humans have been a mere blip in the history of life on the planet. What are you, six feet tall? If your height was life on earth, humans are the dandruff on your scalp.”
The narrator puts it another way: “We’re all born with one body and there’s no possibility of a refund. No way to test-drive a different form. So how could anyone not be willing to pay an arm and a leg for a better arm and a better leg?” What are the consequences of constantly transforming one’s physical body when someone profits from it? Where will such experiments end? The book takes us through to one disturbing outcome.
Imagining a city overrun with the zootech creatures created by corporations, Kobo quips: “Venom was quick, capitalism killed you nice and slow. Then sent you a bill.” Gerald is perhaps a voice of wisdom from his underground hideout, telling Kobo, “You can’t control life, no matter what patents you hold.” Control is a key theme in this novel, from control of one’s body to control of the economy to control of life itself and what form it will take, all the way to control of the narrative that society will be told about what happens to JJ Zunz.
Throughout the novel, the author introduces us to characters from Kobo’s past. Their choices show us the complexity of this tech-dominated world and the way individual perspectives and values affect how humans navigate the situations they find themselves in. The book is often hard to put down, as one new obstacle after another deepens the mystery. At a key moment of revelation, Kobo “felt like a rat let out of a maze, only to find himself in a larger one.”
This is a thrilling, thought-provoking adventure about capitalism and loyalty, trust and greed, temptation and fulfillment. As imaginative as Michel is, we would be prudent to heed the warnings embedded in this sobering and raucous romp.