Suicide Club

Rachel Heng

Book cover

I enjoyed this sci-fi debut novel. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what gets identified/marketed as sci-fi/fantasy and what doesn’t, since seeing a comment (I think by N.K. Jemisin quoting someone else, but I don’t remember for sure) that “magical realism is fantasy written by a Latin American.” SF/F is definitely a heavily gate-kept genre, unfortunately. The premise of the book could not be more sci-fi, and yet, as far as I can tell, the book is definitely not marketed as such. (For example, Macmillan’s page for the book doesn’t mention sci-fi at all, other than a reference to Gizmodo putting it on a sci-fi best-of list, which, good for them!) It seems similar to Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven,” another excellent book that is clearly science fiction but was not marketed as such. (Penguin’s page on that book specifically categorizes it as “Literary Fiction.”) To some extent, this may be driven by a sense on publishers’ part that sci-fi is a “niche” and not wanting to pigeonhole their authors. But it extends to readers, too. Let’s look at Goodreads shelves, which are crowdsourced. “Suicide Club” was most often shelved as “Fiction” (46 times), with “Science Fiction” fairly close behind (39). But compare that to the other sci-fi book on my currently-reading shelf, “A Deepness in the Sky” by (man) Vernor Vinge: 927 Science Fiction to 293 Fiction. A similar disparity occurs for “Station Eleven” as for “Suicide Club” (4,395 Fiction to 2,426 Science Fiction). I would guess that there is a simple bias at work that “women don’t write sci-fi.” Perhaps there is also a sense that the sci-fi genre can’t include works of high literary merit, which would be an unfortunate and self-fulfilling prophecy (as the best works get categorized as just “fiction”).

Anyway, about the book. I think Heng does a good job of portraying the key ways in which society has changed without getting too bogged down in technobabble about how life extension technology is supposed to work. (Although she does clearly love inventing terms for random things–such as the “swimlates” class that Lea attends, which took me a long time to figure out is meant to be read like swim-LOT-ties and not SWIM-lates.) This keeps the book mostly focused on the human stories of Lea and Anya, and their struggles to cope with death and old age (of others) in a society that has decided to denigrate both those things. I was definitely reminded to some degree of the “biopunk” setting portrayed by N.K. Jemisin in “The Stone Sky,” where a nominal reverence for life engenders some rather appalling practices when you scratch the surface. I was also really interested in the way Heng portrayed the nature of life changing with life-extension technology. Education and professional schools stretch out for decades, and decade upon decade of living at basically the same supposedly “ideal” phase of life, circa early thirties, kind of blend into each other, with the ultimate result that an extended life doesn’t really “feel” substantially different than a normal-length life (of course, with the exception that you can’t do a bunch of fun things because they limit your longevity).

Sometimes it was frustrating to feel like Lea was waffling back and forth between different perspectives on what was going on, but ultimately I found this to be pretty realistic–after 100 years of being indoctrinated in a certain way of thinking, it is really difficult for her to turn around and act against it. I also really liked the relationship between Lea and Anya, and was glad that Heng didn’t turn it into a romantic relationship (which I was anticipating in the swimming pool scene)–simply because normal friendship is awesome and worth centering stories around, too.

I suspect, unfortunately, that “Suicide Club” won’t be nominated for the Hugo or Nebula awards–I see that “Station Eleven” was not nominated for either when it was published. But so far it is my favorite sci-fi novel of the year!

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars