The Great Sci-Fi Reality TV Novel Was Published in 1974


Though his work is not as widely known as some of his contemporaries — J.G. Ballard, for example, or Anthony Burgess — D.G. Compton’s speculative fiction is just as attuned to the relation between technology and death. And it could be argued that it was this sensitivity that allowed him to write with prescience and, as Jeff VanderMeer explains, “astonishingly easy intimacy and interiority,” about subjects as diverse as virtual reality (Synthajoy), the depletion of fuel (Ascendancies), and, in the case of the excerpt below, the inevitable rise and ubiquity of reality television. The “continuous” of the title of The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1974), signifies, in one sense, the protagonist’s unbroken display as the subject of a constant episode of reality television (Human Destiny TV). In another sense, the word is a moral assertion: though she is filmed and distributed to a “pain-starved public” (one virtually cured of death) in the weeks after her diagnosis with a terminal brain disease, Katherine is not a broken or fractured human. She is continuous, even if, living in the world much like the one Compton described in 1974, it’s not clear that we can say the same for ourselves.


“Tuesday” from The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe

Katherine Mortenhoe. . . . So now I had a name to work on, and a case history. I also had NTV’s background report. The last two would be of little help. The facts in the case history and the background report — chopped arbitrarily, like photographs, out of continuous time for the neatest of reasons — would be dangerously misleading. Almost certainly untrue. Untrue, that is, in the largest sense.

The name was more useful, Mortenhoe being the surname of her first husband retained into her second marriage. It must at least be indicative of something….Affection for Gerald Mortenhoe, perhaps? Or for the state of being Mrs. Mortenhoe, of having been Mrs. Mortenhoe? Or possibly simply indicative of a need to be polysyllabic. Her second husband’s name, Harold Clegg, was far duller.

I was picky over the name because it was all I had to go on, all I had that was continuous and truthful and entirely hers. I have had this thing about continuity, you see, since my long ago realization that people were true only when they were continuous. As an attitude, an approach to my job as a reporter, this had done me very well. It had got me where I was at that moment. Also it was a game that was now filling in the time nicely until the arrival in the flesh of the only true, continuous Katherine Mortenhoe.

It will be noticed that I was at that time very much concerned with what I saw as the truth. I still am.

I had read the case history and the background report over coffee in the NTV canteen. The facts in them, partial and superficial though they were, had aroused in me a compassion that my more recent thinking about the name was rapidly dissipating. I was coming down in favor of a need in her to be polysyllabic, and that sort of status-consciousness bored me. Time would tell, however. Meanwhile I sat with Vincent and waited for the only true Katherine Mortenhoe to appear on the other side of the Medical Center’s one-way mirror. I don’t remember that I asked him his opinion of the matter. I had prejudices enough for both of us.

Monkeys seldom sit. They squat. Likewise, only even less often, bare-assed Homo sapiens, man in the Garden, unprotected fore and aft. Their rumps just aren’t that tough. They too squat. So it might be said that the ease with which today we park our bald and flaccid bums at the slightest excuse represents the finest flower of our civilization. Be that as it may, at that time whenever I sat and became aware that I sat, I felt pampered and feeble. I felt rarified, parasitic, as if my ass were some oversized sucker clapped onto the rest of creation. I would fidget. I would lift apologetically first one side and then the other, proving it wasn’t really so. I would fancy I could hear the disconnection.

Well, maybe I did that once, just for the fun of it. Games, games . . .

“Nervous?” said Vincent, smiling his Program Controller’s smile.

Since I had in fact at that particular moment been thinking entirely about the name Mortenhoe and what it might signify, the shifting he’d noticed must have been simply a neurotic reflex. I settled both cheeks firmly.

“I just hope I’m not going to hate her,” I said.

“I never mind a bit of involvement. You know that.” Vincent liked his interviewers taking a positive attitude. It made for brighter viewing. But the program we were planning this time was no mere sit-up-straight-and-pay-attention studio interview. If the thing went according to plan, and Vincent’s things always did, I was going to be with Katherine Mortenhoe on and off for the next five or six weeks.

“I’d rather like her,” I said. “For both our sakes.”

Vincent peered at his cigar. It had gone out. He wasn’t really a cigar man. He relit it. “Just so long as you steer clear of the mush,” he said.

He was needling me, of course. They’d never have spent that much money on a mush-merchant . . . From long habit I looked up to check hair and tie in the monitor mounted in the corner above the one-way mirror between us and Dr. Mason’s consulting room, but of course I wasn’t on it. No hair, no tie, no face looking into camera. For the briefest moment I was shocked. Where was it, the face I had seen in lash-up studios from Abergavenny to Nova Zembla? The face that had become my external measure of self? For what that was worth . . . Instead, what I saw here, in the monitor mounted in the corner above the one-way mirror, was simply a picture of the monitor up in the corner above the one-way mirror. And in that, a picture of the monitor up in the corner above the one-way mirror. And in that . . . But where, in all that electronic trickery down to infinity, down to the smallest significant pattern the tube’s 605 lines could produce, where in all of that was I?

Idiotically, I tried looking away, and then back again quickly, as if I could catch it out. It was idiotic, I knew that now, but I tried. The image naturally (unnaturally) lurched but remained the same. In the monitor mounted above the one-way mirror, an image of what I was looking at. The monitor mounted above the one-way mirror.

I closed my eyes. My eyes.

The image would have closed down too. Of course it would. They were still my eyes, but only just.

When I opened them again I looked instead through the mirror into the room beyond. An expensive, reassuring place. Warm colors. Last century furniture. Flowers in vases. Fake warmth, fake furniture, fake flowers. Fake reassurance. I didn’t ask Vincent what the Medical Center had fixed this all up for. Not just us, certainly, and I couldn’t imagine any other answer that would cheer me.

Dr. Mason had his ball-point pen upright on his leather-topped desk. He slid his thumb and forefinger down it, then turned it the other way up and slid his thumb and forefinger down it again. If I concentrated on my peripheral vision I could just make out the monitor image of Dr. Mason as he turned his ball-point the other way up and slid his thumb and forefinger down it again.

Image-framing, they called it. Fiendishly clever, these Micro-Electro-Neurologists, MEN for short. Which, if you’ve ever met one, is one of my better jokes.

“Headache?” said Vincent. He’d seen me squinting sideways.

I didn’t envy Dr. Mason his first bite at Katherine Mortenhoe. He was her long-time personal physician but, with what he had to tell her, and bearing in mind her previous case history, her reaction must surely be hard to predict. Bitterness? A complete collapse? Possibly anger. I knew him hardly at all but he was clearly a professional. Suffering nobly born would bring out the best in him, and he’d gladly hold out a (professional) hand in its direction. Suffering wallowed in, suffering without dignity, would turn him right off but he’d never show it.

“Are you still getting those headaches?” Vincent said, a little louder, frowning his frown.

I’d had more than enough of people asking me about my headaches, about the tingling in my extremities, about my nasal passages, about the frequency of my bowel movements. If I’d listened to them I’d have walked around the last three months with one finger on my pulse and the other up my rectum. And made half-hourly reports on what I discovered.

In any case, Vincent’s smile, Vincent’s frown, they were part of his performance.

So, “Only when I laugh,” I said, but not sharply. Vincent was NTV’s Program Controller.

The mirror was thinner than I’d expected: Dr. Mason cocked his head on one side and winced. As if he were the one with the bloody headache.

Vincent nudged me. “She’ll be on her way up now,” he said. It was a ventriloquial trick, the words reaching precisely to me and not a centimeter farther, while his lips barely moved and his eyes were fixed on the far corner of the room, a trick learned at cocktail parties and official executions.

I turned to him and said, loudly, “I thought this mirror was supposed to be soundproof.”

Dr. Mason looked sideways in my direction, not at my eyes as he would have done if he could have seen me, but farther down, somewhere around my Adam’s apple. He shook his head reprovingly and I’m afraid I put my tongue out. Vincent pretended it all wasn’t happening. Dr. Mason went back to his ball-point, sliding his thumb and forefinger down it and turning it the other way up.

“It would have been marvelous,” Vincent said, invisibly, “to have been able to use this. We tried a reconstruction once, you know. But it doesn’t work.”

“I know.”

“It wasn’t that it lacked spontaneity. And the chap was most cooperative. He seemed genuinely to be reliving it. The agony, you know.”

“I know.”

“But we couldn’t use it. We knocked it around the office a bit, and then said no. Use just one reconstruction and you’ve lost. Lost credibility.”

If I’d said “I know” just once more I’d have been pushing it. Taking advantage of my position. A man, a sensitive man, even if he is fire-proof in an organization, still has an obligation to be mannerly . . . They could see to it that I never worked again, of course, but it wouldn’t get them much of a return on their investment, on the fifty thousand their insurance company had let them bet on me. On the experienced, reliable, sensitive me.

“It’s a pity,” I said instead, “that there isn’t some way of signing subjects up in advance. Telling them some story, just to get their names on a bit of paper. Then we could use it right from kickoff.”

“Surely you’re not suggesting that we mislead the public?”

“Artistic license. No subject would complain. Once they’d signed we’d come clean and they’d see the point.”

The idea was preposterous, of course. We were just making chat, waiting for the arrival of Katherine Mortenhoe. These days the Civil Liberties Act, the Invasions of Privacy Act, the new Government Code, all that stuff keep us media people strictly on the straight and narrow. The legislation is basically of our own making anyway, for our own protection, and we’d be mad to think of bucking it. That way led straight back to Stevenson’s Last Stand, apocryphal or not, and tedious jokes about embarrassed men turning up at hospitals with radio mikes stuck up their rectums.

The intercom buzzed on Dr. Mason’s desk. “Mrs. Mortenhoe to see you, Doctor.”

He put away his ball-point, checked in his desk drawer for the computer printout I’d seen him put there not five minutes before, blew his nose, wiped his eyes, and cleared his throat. He was leaving nothing to chance, our Dr. Mason.

“Show her in, please,” he said.

His checking for the printout had reminded me of a pretty good computer joke. There’s this fella, see, goes along to his doctor for a diagnosis. Spots, pains, odd sensations, you build up the middle bit how you like — symptoms the wilder the better. Anyway, the doctor writes it all down, and feeds it in. Long pause. Flashing lights, whirling tapes, clicking relays. Finally the computer spits out one of those long blue diagnosis printouts. Only this one’s only got six words on it. Just six words.

“That’s marvelous,” the fella says. “What’s it say?” The doctor passes the printout across his desk. The fella doesn’t dare look. “Tell me,” he says, “tell me what it says.” The doctor looks down at the paper. “There’s…a…lot…of…it…about,” he reads.

I had time, before Katherine Mortenhoe came into the office, to wish that her computer, too, had had a sense of humor.