Edward Ashton’s Mickey7 is chock-full of interesting ingredients.
Set at an unspecified point in the future, it sees humanity having migrated to a planet they call Midgard and solved their most immediate issues: there’s something like Universal Basic Income (and hence not true poverty) and neither pollution nor overpopulation, industry and agriculture are automated, and the government is democratic (more on this neat little paradise later). In fact, there’s quite little to do in this quasi-utopia, which is why humanity spends its free time establishing colonies on distant planets.
However, since colonization missions are treacherous (interstellar travel guzzles energy, making the trips one-way, while physics and technology both place limits on how much can be seen—and therefore known—about the destination), each mission has an Expendable: a person who takes on the most dangerous and lethal jobs, and who, if they get killed, are quite simply reincarnated (read: 3D-printed) with all the memories from their previous upload. Enter our protagonist: Mickey7, the seventh iteration of Mickey Barnes, who volunteered as Expendable on a colonization mission to the icy world of Niflheim. Due to Mickey surviving a situation in which he was left for dead, only to discover that they’ve already made a Mickey8 by the time he returns, he’s in a spot of trouble in a colony that’s already rationing calories, and which has a strong taboo against multiple copies of the same person.
Now, if this were simply a book review, this would be the part where I do that thing book reviewers do, and say “Unfortunately,” followed by a phrase about how the author doesn’t take advantage of the rich potential of his own ideas—for potential there is, in both the worldbuilding and the conceit of an Expendable. But since Mickey7 is slated to be a film starring Robert Pattinson and helmed by Bong Joon-ho, whose Parasite garnered both critical praise and numerous awards, I get to focus on the positive: how an obviously talented writer/director can put all these ingredients together into a tasty stir-fry (or salad. You choose.) of a poignant story.
The most obvious of these delicious ingredients is the deliciously science fiction-y idea of the Expendable. It’s probably the concept that caused early reviewers to call the book “high concept” and “thought provoking,” even though it’s a trope that’s far from uncommon in science fiction: Star Trek’s transporters, for example, deconstruct a person molecule-by-molecule only to make a perfect replica on the other end (something The Big Bang Theory made a joke of); Netflix’s Altered Carbon (based on Richard K. Morgan’s books of the same name) is set in a future world where everyone’s consciousness is backed up to a computer chip compulsorily inserted into their spinal columns, allowing people to change bodies, travel instantaneously, and reincarnate; Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse essentially equated personality to memory, making for dizzying interchanges between bodies and identities. And that’s but a handful of examples.
In other words, the idea of copying, uploading, and downloading personalities and memories, while a thought-provoking one because it destabilizes our assumptions about identity and memory, is also as common as space dust in science fiction. Is an identical copy of you really you? Are you still you without your memories? Is there something like a soul? Science fiction fans have been debating these thorny philosophical questions for decades, and the inclusion of such a trope in a storyworld is not, in itself, a contribution to that storied debate. There has to be something more—which, in this case, is lacking beyond an occasional cursory allusion to the Greek myth of the Ship of Theseus. Instead, Ashton’s novel proceeds swiftly and without question into making Mickey8 the antagonist, vying with Mickey7 for existence (after Mickey7 has an unrelated realization that he doesn’t want to die).
That’s easy to do because Mickey8 is inexplicably completely different from Mickey7 and also a little bit of an asshole, a difference in personality that isn’t really explained by anything except narrative necessity and this creeping sense I have that Ashton wanted to make it glaringly obvious that a copy of a person with the same memories and ‘identity’ does not the same person make. Thus, strangely, there’s absolutely no discomfort or soul-searching on Mickey’s part that Mickey8 is, in some way, him; Ashton writes him as if he were some entirely different person and proceeds apace with the story. Which wouldn’t be as frustrating if it weren’t for the constant namedropping of philosophers like John Locke and a marketing push to make it seem like a sci-fi author who’s thought of copying a person has found some kind of philosophical holy grail.
But perhaps the culprit here is the medium: text is not well-suited to the complexities of this philosophical conundrum in the way that visual media are. Think, for example, of a series like Orphan Black or the aforementioned Dollhouse, where characters slipped in and out of each other’s bodies and identities, played by immensely talented actors who imbued each variation of a person with an eerie, almost-imperceptible difference. Perhaps it is this possibility that Bong saw when he reportedly read Ashton’s manuscript and decided to make it into a movie. Think of the possibilities of a film, with a talented actor and an acclaimed director, attuned to the rich potential produced by the deeply unsettling fact that Mickey’s antagonist is himself—or is he? Think of Pattinson playing the two Mickeys as almost identical, but one’s just slightly off—and maybe you can’t tell which one, while claustrophobic cinematography and crescendoing music makes the whole experience even more uncanny. And maybe what makes Mickey8 the bad guy is precisely his ability to create discomfort through that uncanniness, the way in which he’s almost-but-not-quite our Mickey? Imagine the tightrope for an actor to walk, the possibility for a virtuoso performance that makes us question: which of him is the real one? And what does that question even mean?
And what if that similarity were played to its greatest effect through interpersonal conflict? For example, the character of Nasha, Mickey’s partner and love interest, unquestionably accepts both Mickey7 and Mickey8 (leading to a truly bizarre threesome; but then again, it’s not any weirder than your average episode of Star Trek). But what if she wasn’t clued in right away, leading to a nightmare scenario of wondering what’s happened to her lover and why he’s suddenly so different? What if she had to make a choice between the two of them? Which one of them, to her, is more “Mickey,” the man she loves?
Moving from the personal to the social and political, meanwhile, brings us to a future world made up of yet more building blocks of an excellent story. In Mickey’s future, human civilization (which calls itself the Diaspora, a loaded term that begs exploration) has resettled on a different and relatively comfortable planet and, for lack of anything better to do, sends out regular colonization missions. On Midgard, meanwhile, Universal Basic Income is enough to get by, but not much else—and being a historian doesn’t pay, because it’s the professions considered “useful,” then as now, that have a place: medics, pilots, engineers, geneticists, biologists, soldiers. (There is, admittedly, one cursory reference to poets and entertainers). People like Mickey, on the other hand, scrape by on a government pittance because there’s no need for historians. After all, everyone has the equivalent of all human knowledge in their pockets, so why would anyone ever need a historian?
The idea that we have access to all of human knowledge is a tired truism that’s been around for at least as long as a smartphone. That doesn’t actually make it true, because, firstly: have you heard of paywalls? But, also, and more importantly, historians don’t collect facts; they interpret them. They write the books and the articles from which you learn history, and given that Mickey’s constantly reading both articles and primary sources, one wonders who did the writing. He also learned history in school, which, as he admits, had a different spin on the Diaspora’s failures than the articles he reads as an adult, so clearly history is more than just facts than anyone can access; there are interpretations and valences coming from somewhere. Plus, this is a world that seems to have history teachers (and wouldn’t it be useful for colony worlds to have a few of those?). This is perhaps a particularly nitpicky example, but it’s one that makes it painfully obvious that Mickey7 was written by someone who spends a lot more time in the hard sciences than the humanities (and indeed, Ashton is a physicist), and whose worldbuilding, therefore, isn’t informed by crucial disciplines like history, social sciences, and anthropology.
Still, what Ashton echoes here is a science fiction trope dating all the way to the nineteenth century, when industrialization, the mechanization of labor, and mass production created anxieties about a future where only efficiency, productivity, and machinery had value. For example, works like Jules Verne’s (unpublished in his lifetime) dystopia Paris in the Twentieth Century or Albert Robida’s 1882 novel The Twentieth Century portray a future where the humanities—arts, poetry, and so on—have little value; art can be mass-reproduced and consumed, while literature is “condensed” and consumed like vitamins. That anxiety has popped up in science fiction since—in works like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.—and it’s somewhat borne out by the fact that when there’s an economic recession, the first thing that gets cut is arts and humanities budgets.
In other words, there’s a storied history here, and an interesting critique to be made about the ways that, as we advance technologically and fulfill human beings’ basic needs—food, water, shelter—we often leave by the wayside our more “spiritual” or psychological needs: for art, for culture, for inspiration, for social relationships. This, despite the fact that, in times of crisis, it is the arts we reach for…how many hours of television and books did we consume during the months of pandemic and lockdown? And so, this world, undeveloped as it is, is a bleak one well suited to a critique of our own productivity-obsessed world; in fact, it reads a little like a darker version of a Star Trek future, where humanity has solved all their material needs, and yet instead of looking to the stars for exploration and wonder, we look there to colonize. And Bong, who so aptly critiqued the dehumanization inherent in capitalism in his Parasite, seems well-placed to flesh this blueprint of a world into something dark and familiar, funny and terrifying.
In the process, he’ll hopefully do something about the plot (or rather, lack thereof), because Mickey does so little throughout the story that if his character were female, the think pieces about agency would practically write themselves. This is despite the fact that their little colony world is full of pressing issues: first, there’s two Mickeys, and they can only hide their existence for so long; the local fauna (called “creepers”) are possibly sentient, acting weird, and eating through the metal enclosure of the colony; the head of their colony is a trigger-happy extremist from a fringe religious sect. Clearly, someone needs to step up and at very least try to solve the mystery of what the locals are up to.
In fact, Mickey himself admits that “a fair number of beachhead colonies fail for one reason or another. I’d really hate to have this one fail because of me.” He sure doesn’t hate that idea enough, though, as he spends the majority of the book avoiding being seen in two places at once and reading about failed colonies, until he’s eventually found out as a double. The reading is certainly interesting—it’s another place where the social commentary that is science fiction’s forte peeks out of the cracks in the narrative. For example, there’s a colony called Gault’s World, a clear allusion to Galt’s Gulch from Atlas Shrugged, which was built according to a libertarian philosophy and subsequently failed because for a society to function you need things like, you know, infrastructure. Roanoke, meanwhile, is a reference to the obvious: a colony whose residents were taken out by some unknown form of local fauna. These flashbacks to failed colonies also allow the narrative to alternate between past and present, an alternation necessary to cover up the fact that nothing actually happens.
No, really, I can’t really summarize the extent to which absolutely nothing happens in this entire book.
Mickey7 was blurbed and reviewed as The Martian-meets-Dark-Matter (and we really must talk about how Andy Weir has become a marketing category in his own right, but that’s for another essay), but the only commonality is the snark possessed by the protagonist. A distinctive feature of Weir’s characters, however, is that they “science the shit out of” their problems, to borrow Mark Watney’s eloquent phrasing. It’s a triumph of brains over brawn that both this graduate of the University of Chicago and its admissions office (which has a cheeky plaque celebrating our fictional alum, Watney) more than appreciates. The Mickey7 equivalent of that would be Mickey using his amateur historian chops to “humanities the shit out of this,” something of which science fiction does not have nearly enough. If anyone saves the day with their brains, it’s usually the scientists (see: the Stargate franchise, the Star Trek franchise, as well as characters like the MCU’s Tony Stark and Shuri, and the Arrowverse’s Felicity Smoak)—even if they’re often the ones who caused the problem in the first place. Characters like Daniel Jackson and Indiana Jones (whose pictures also adorn our admissions office walls) are notable exceptions, but with much less of a storied history. The former, in particular, rarely gets to use his penchant for language, communication, diplomacy, and history before things start blowing up.
And so Mickey7 seems to provide a perfect set up for Mickey to use all that historian knowledge to save the day, save the colony, save the world; in fact, that’s what I spent most of the novel expecting would happen. How amazing would it be if, thanks to all his knowledge about failed colonies, and the ways in which they went wrong, he saw the writing on the wall for this colony, whose crops are failing and who are being attacked by creepers? What if, instead of the creepers just being made to think he’s a diplomat through a misunderstanding in the final couple dozen pages, Mickey actually was a diplomat? And in the process, what if the story sent the message that in the future, language, history, the humanities—all that stuff that gets cut out of budgets first—matters? Even on a colony that’s rationing their food and counting their ammo?
Now that’s a story I would watch the hell out of.
Dr. Anastasia Klimchynskaya is a Sherlockian, a Trekkie, and a scholar of science fiction. Currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, she specializes in nineteenth-century science fiction and has appeared widely to speak about her work and the genre, including as a recurring co-host on the Rosenbach Library’s Sundays with Frankenstein program. Find her on Twitter @anaklimchy.