#DesiBooksReview 3: Microbes are the new frontiers in Tabish Khair’s post-pandemic speculative future

#DesiBooksReview Issue 3

The Body by the Shore by Tabish Khair | Interlink Books | June 7, 2022
Reviewer: JEY SUSHIL

Set in the near-future 2030, The Body by the Shore could be called post-pandemic speculative science fiction but it is so much more. Rooted deeply in the anxieties of the future and discussing the themes of migration, climate change, colonialism within science, organ trade, and refugee ships, the novel depicts several crucial, present-day problems in a cohesive narrative.

Notwithstanding these grand themes, this is a fiction of the Anthropocene. Or, to be more precise, a meditation on microbes in a post-pandemic world. We now know the viruses and the kind of damage they can do to us, but Khair takes us on a different journey where we learn about microbes that can alter our behaviors and make us behave as we never would otherwise. 

A microbe that has infected the body of a rat forces it to go to a cat to be eaten. We might wonder why, and Khair explains in his lucid literary voice supported with scientific evidence: as the microbe could only reproduce in the guts of a cat, it molds the behavior of a rat and puts it on the road to death. Now think of this scenario with respect to the human body. The novel hints about such experiments on human beings and suggests the possibility of controlling human minds. 

With immersive prose, Khair explores various scientific nuts and bolts and asks the ethical question: what is to be done with science and the knowledge we have acquired or are acquiring? The answer provided by Michael, who runs an experimental lab on behalf of a syndicate, is chilling, “Because we are the fittest, you, me, our people, and it is time the fittest ran this world. [. . .] This thing, this new knowledge will allow us to manipulate the masses, so that we can be what we are.”

Though set in 2030, the novel moves back and forth in time—from the pandemic years of the 2020s to 2007—in wide-ranging, non-chronological chapters. The narrative reveals the work done on microbes, the personal lives of different characters, the story of maverick scientists discussing their microbe-related research at a seminar, and their disappearance afterwards. In the beginning, we even get the history of the Nazi-supporting Russian Merezhkovsky brothers, one a writer and the other a biologist-botanist, as they converse about “eugenically designed boys” and the idea of killing such people when they reach the age of thirty-five. Accounts like these prepare readers for the related but more speculative world of the 2030s.

Despite the substantial amount of scientific information and philosophical musings, the plot unfolds humanistically through the central characters of Michelle, a troubled Caribbean woman, and Kurt, her lover, who tricks her and brings her to an abandoned oil rig. Kurt has a fuzzy background and works for the syndicate and their secret lab. Jens Erik is a somewhat confused racist (although, in the end, he develops into a genuinely sensible character) loner working toward self-improvement. He’s also a semi-retired policeman trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter. During his reconciliation attempts, Erik ponders on his own racially-driven biases and recalls the body of a Black immigrant that had washed ashore during his police days. His unofficial investigation of the dead man reveals the truth about the oil-rig and he’s helped in this endeavor by second-generation Turkish policemen and a Bangladeshi immigrant informer. A sinister, parallel plot unveils with Harris Maloub, a retired assassin with his own quirks and complicated war-related background, working with his former handler to investigate the happenings at the oil-rig. Maloub, Erik, and Michelle never meet in the story, but their fates are connected through the oil rig, the body on the shore, and the investigation.

The novel has a noteworthy structure. The first part is titled “MICROBIA” and starts with glimpses of the various stories so that we develop a kind of readerly network to connect the dots as we progress. Approaching the second part of the novel with an awareness of a microbial network, we enter “LIMBO”. What is this limbo? The author explains through Mikhailov/Michael, who runs the experimental lab on the oil rig: “. . . one of the conditions of limbo is that reality always takes place elsewhere, and all of them had to keep the rules of whatever limbo that they sustained.” There are masters of limbo and some are from the group of scientists who first met at that earlier seminar. Most of them either died in mysterious circumstances or went missing and some probably remained in limbo, like the woman who appears to some characters in a flowery dress and is officially dead though no one knows what happened to her. In this latter part, the novel becomes magical, spiritual even, and we float along with the narrative flow without needing to anchor ourselves too much to the underlying tropes of colonialism, migration, or capitalism.

In the last two decades, we’ve had several novels on Anthropocene themes bordering on scientific fantasy: a distant land, experiments on humans and animals gone wrong, isolationism, time travel, induced trauma, etc. The Body by the Shore is neither fantasy nor magical realism but rooted in the factual realities of our post-pandemic world. The 2030 depicted in this novel is not a distant future but more like the present moment. Khair is clearly warning us about the colonization of scientific knowledge and the associated abuse by powerful syndicates. After oil, the newer frontiers of biotech and infotech are creating unforeseen and unprecedented dangers through misuse. In fact, the abandoned oil rig is itself a metaphor for capitalistic greed in a post-pandemic world. The big corporates (the oil money) see microbes as the new frontiers to be captured and harnessed to experimentally control human minds. As Kurt, says, “Chaos creates Capital.”

This is also a truly global narrative beginning in the Caribbean and then moving to the suburbs of Denmark, America, India and ultimately to an oil rig somewhere in the North Sea. This geographical decentralization reads like a statement of the author that, in our globalized world, there is no center and everything is connected even if it lies within the deep sea. 

While reading, you might be reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian novel, Never Let Me Go, about organ-harvesting, or Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome, that discusses medical science and mysticism. However, Khair goes beyond with his deeper explorations of migration, global discrimination, and neo-liberalism. This leap in ideas places the multi-genre Khair within the long-running South Asian literary tradition of speculative fiction alongside other contemporary authors like Usman Malik, Samit Basu, and Saad Hussain.

Given the many fascinating scientific details, it might seem as if the author is fictionalizing the tech stuff. But do a rudimentary google search and you’ll find every bit of information Khair has presented. This challenges our commonly accepted knowledge boundaries and makes the speculative world seem eerily real. It also leaves us with a troubling reminder of how little we know, even after a worldwide, long-running pandemic. In the end, despite the satisfactory coming together of all the narrative strands, the book raises several questions about the future. What could happen if/when microbes capture our minds? Is it even possible? And if yes, then what does such a future hold store for us? 

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Jey Sushil is the author of the novel, House-Husband ki Diary, and is pursuing a PhD in Comparative Literature in the international writer’s track at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. He can be reached at jey.sushil@wustl.edu

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