Nothing to make a song and dance about

still from Death Watch

Harvey Keitel roams a dystopian Glasgow in Tavernier’s Death Watch

D.G. Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1974) has a particular relevance to medical humanities at Glasgow. When Bertrand Tavernier filmed the adapted screenplay as Death Watch (1980), he chose Glasgow as the setting for the motion picture’s urban scenes, drawn by a contrast between past glories and present decay.

Compton’s novel is set in a future UK ruled, as the narrative reveals in dribs and drabs, by a repressive surveillance regime presiding over enormous levels of material and health inequality. Katherine Mortenhoe, an editor of computer-authored romances, is part of a reasonably secure middle class in which “practically nobody died of anything except senescence” — life spans of around 100 years are typical, and palliative care is dominated by so-called “cheerers”, “euphoria-producing drugs” that ease the psychological pain of pending death.

Katherine’s anodyne existence is overturned when she is given a terminal diagnosis at age 44, and told she has only a few weeks left to live. The real terror for her is not death, but the invasion of her privacy by the mass media, who want to sell her story to a pain-starved public. She eventually ends up as the focus of a reality TV series, Human Destiny, that voyeuristically pursues the dying and seriously ill. Her involvement is unknowing because Roddie, the journalist who follows her, and who insinuates himself into her confidence, is equipped with camera eyes that relay everything he sees and hears back to the headquarters of his employers, NTV.

Compton’s novel stages a confrontation between the values and ambitions of technocratic medicine, and recalcitrant intuitions on the value of suffering that Katherine and Roddie are not quite able to explicitly defend (unlike Glasgow University’s philosophers). Katherine’s doctor asserts that “cheerers” are necessary because “[i]f there’s one thing a doctor learns it’s that there’s nothing inherently noble about suffering”. For Roddie, on the other hand, “the ratings showed that NTV was right in judging the public’s deep unconscious need. Its life was false, prettified into a bland, painless, deathless advertiser’s dream. The public wanted, and deserved, to be reminded that this was only a half of life, the half allowed by technology run wild.”

At one point Roddie encounters the modern medical profession, flesh and blood doctors whom he perceives satirically as “photosensitive, audio-linked, tactile-orientated, their discerners clicking, their programs running AOK”, and who offer a refrain half-way between interrogative and imperative: “The new drugs were marvellous, weren’t they? Weren’t they?“.

This pharmaceutical and discursive erosion of the life world extends to the domain of another Glasgow University speciality, End of Life Studies. When Katherine reflects on her pending death, her casual idioms are unwittingly instructive: “Organisms wore out, broke down, stopped. There was nothing to make a song and dance about”. The rituals and arts of death are largely absent, apart from the “orgies of compassion” promoted by Human Destiny. Katherine “hadn’t heard of a grave, not a real corpse-and-coffin grave, not in ten or fifteen years. Herself, she’d give her altered organism to a medical school”.

Of course, there is much else in Katherine Mortenhoe than this debate with a particular medicalized worldview. The text’s prescient account of reality TV is manifest, and, like Caduceus Wild, the protagonist’s vicissitudes allow a picaresque adventure through different social groups within a future dystopia (taking on the traditional function of the utopian “tour guide”). But Compton’s novel is nonetheless a landmark within medical science fiction, and prime material for our ongoing database of sources.

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