There are certain short stories that feel almost uncomfortably compressed, so full of interesting concepts and characters that the material just begs to be explored further. In this case, “uncomfortably compressed” is a good thing, by the way—the exact opposite of a bloated novel that takes a few hundred pages to develop the same rich level of depth.
One example of such hyper-efficient compression was “Bridesicle” by Will McIntosh, originally published in Asimov’s in 2009. It was one of that year’s most memorable short stories, deservedly winning the Hugo for Best Short Story as well as the Asimov’s Readers’ Award. Will McIntosh must have agreed that the story’s starting concept was too good, and its emotional resonance too strong, to leave it unexplored further.
Reworking a short story into a full-length novel doesn’t always work, but in this case, Will McIntosh has pulled it off and then some. Love Minus Eighty, the author’s third novel after the excellent Soft Apocalypse and Hitchers (which I reviewed here and here), has turned out to be a beautiful, emotionally resonant tale.
Love Minus Eighty in a few words: cryonics and dating services meet in a post-collapse future. You can trace a direct line from the future shown in this novel to the one in McIntosh’s debut novel Soft Apocalypse: resources have run out, but life goes on. The gap between rich and poor has widened dramatically. The most affluent can afford to live in New York’s High Town, the neighborhood equivalent of a Central Park South penthouse. Others may need to walk a few miles from the train station to get home to the run-down suburbs.
Cryonics has become a viable industry, but of course only the rich can afford to have their bodies frozen and revived. However, if you happen to be a young woman with an attractiveness score at or above the required level, you may be eligible for a free period of cryonic preservation. The required account balance will be maintained by the fees of rich men who can set up expensive “dates”: you’ll briefly be thawed to be interviewed and inspected, and if you pass muster, you’re revived and returned to life. Colloquially, the (often involuntary) participants in this program are referred to as “bridesicles.”
Love Minus Eighty explores this concept by following the lives of people who are directly impacted by it. A young woman experiences the disorientation and terror of being thawed for the first time after her death while being propositioned by a stranger. A young musician kills a woman in a car accident and, torn apart by guilt, devotes his life to raising money for cryogenic dates with her so the company doesn’t pull the plug on her.
A second set of characters highlights the way omnipresent social media has affected life in this future, with people wearing Google Glass-like body systems that allow them to be online everywhere, all the time. A wealthy young woman will do almost everything to raise her number of online followers, including dumping her boyfriend in front of the camera. Another woman is this future’s version of a dating coach, feeding lines and suggesting Pickup Artist techniques to her clients in real-time.
The picture Will McIntosh paints here is an exceedingly grim one. Characters are powerless to escape the various levels of exploitation they live through, and even past death they risk becoming captive, frozen mail order brides whose only hope of escape is acting exactly the way rich, pervy bridesicle customers expect. The author explores the social and emotional ramifications of the original short story’s bridesicle concept with merciless clarity.
The only quality the owners of the bridesicle facility look for in their candidates is physical beauty, and again, this is actually quantified: if your score isn’t high enough, you’d better be rich. Mira, the viewpoint character who provides the initial, terrifying look at life as a bridesicle, is a lesbian—something the corporation is not aware of, and something she can never, ever reveal to the men considering her for potential wife material.
Ultimately, the implications of this story are grim. Becoming a trophy wife is not a choice—it’s life or death. For a novel that’s never explicit and always tasteful, it pushes the idea of objectification to its very extreme, well past pornography and prostitution. The exploitation has reached a new level: you must act out your life as close to the most popular profile on every dating site as possible, or face oblivion. Less poignant, but still: you must lead your life as if you’re on camera in a reality TV show, or lose followers and risk irrelevancy. It’s no wonder some people in this future escape into interactive virtualities to the point of reality disconnect.
And yet, surprisingly, there is also a sweet, romantic touch to Love Minus Eighty. Even in the bitter darkness of this novel’s future, there is love. One character has an unrequited crush; another’s love is so strong that it continues even inside the frozen terror of the bridesicle dating center. For all its existential terror, Love Minus Eighty is, on one level at least, a touching love story: beautifully romantic for a novel exploring the plight of cryogenically frozen mail order brides.
If there’s one feature of the novel I found lacking, it’s the surprisingly abrupt ending. It may just be that I wanted more, or that I kept looking out for the second major SFnal concept McIntosh introduced in the original short story, which was strangely missing here. The entire novel would have been different, had it been included, and I’m not saying it’s better or worse for it—simply that I expected it to pop up at some point. Instead, McIntosh introduces an entirely different new technology that feels, somehow, a bit shoehorned into the story: I’m not sure if it was entirely necessary to make the story work. (I’m being intentionally vague here to avoid spoilers, but if you haven’t read it yet, take a look at “Bridesicle” after you’ve read the novel.)
One other aspect of this novel must be highlighted: as a physical object, it’s a gorgeous book. Part of the cover illustration is on a semi-transparent dust cover, the other part on the actual book. Together, they give the illusion of seeing someone reach out through frozen glass. It’s a beautiful effect that works together perfectly with the novel’s content—a true triumph of book design.
More people should be reading Will McIntosh. I hope his excellent novels will receive the attention they deserve now he’s being published by Orbit after flying under the radar for years at the comparatively small Night Shade Books. In Love Minus Eighty, he has given one of his best short stories enough room to breathe, turning it into a dark, impactful novel.
Love Minus Eighty is published by Orbit.
This review originally appeared May 31, 2013 on Tor.com
Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. You can find him on Twitter, and his website is Far Beyond Reality.