Seoul Survivors – Naomi Foyle
(London: Jo Fletcher Books, 2013)
I said online recently, while I was reading Seoul Survivors, that I was dissatisfied with it, but that I wasn’t sure what it was precisely that I was dissatisfied with. Having now finished the novel, I realise that my dissatisfaction is not based on one particular thing but an accumulation of irritations, so let me see if I can separate them from one another.
If I were cruel, I might say that Seoul Survivors aspires to have something for everyone while failing to satisfy anyone.
I am cruel.
What struck me almost immediately about this novel was how it seemed to be utilising very familiar character types. We have the ingenue: Sydney, Canadian, as blonde as blonde can be, an aspiring model, who has been persuaded to travel to South Korea by her lover, Johnny Sandman, to further her career. Because Sydney is ever so slightly naïve, she hasn’t stopped to consider that Johnny Sandman might have an ulterior motive. Instead, with commendable enthusiasm, she throws herself into her modelling work, dreaming of success. The reader sits in on a photo session as the novel opens: it’s pretty clichéd, full of pouting and jutting and pumping bodies. One wonders, and not for the last time, whether this is serious or intended to be some kind of sub-sub-cyberpunk parody. Sydney, though, exists to see the surfaces of everything. She’s got away from her small-town world and she is determined to experience life to the full.
Johnny Sandman? Not one person comments on the absurdity of his name, so either this is perfectly acceptable in this ever-so-slightly futuristic world, or everyone is far too terrified of Sandman’s anger management issues to even mention it. And Johnny Sandman’s anger issues are so bad his employers have sent him on courses to deal with them. Oh, how amusing. Sandman, as his name might suggest, does indeed bring the sleep of forgetfulness, a permanent sleep: he is as much hired killer as he is fixer for a large American company, and a violent one at that. It is difficult though to imagine him as the smoother of ways, the peruser of spreadsheets, and so forth. He talks about the work but we never see him do it. It doesn’t seem to be a fantasy, but for the purposes of the novel, we need the brutal side of Johnny Sandman.
The romantic male lead is Damien, a young wanderer who has fled the UK to get away from pretty much everything, including the death of his sister, Jessica. He travelled to South Korea as a drug mule for a friend, and having transacted business, he has stayed on, teaching English for a living, working hard and saving in order to go to Canada. Damien has an ill-defined but very urgent concern about the future of the world, particularly whether Earth will actually be hit by an asteroid, known as Lucifer’s Hammer (and it is clear that Niven and Porurnelle’s novel of the same name in part provides inspiration for Seoul Survivors). If it happens, he wants to be on high ground, as far from the oceans as possible, and Canada is his destination of choice. There is a kind of clueless earnestness about Damien; throughout the novel he is either mistaken for or else standing in for Hugh Grant, which tells you everything you need to know, as well as giving a neat example of the laziness that seems to underpin so much of this novel.
And to complete the quartet, there is Dr Kim Da Mi, a mysterious Korean woman, working with the same company that Johnny Sandman works for. Dr Kim, one is not surprised to learn, has a plan. It is a plan that might bring about world peace but it is of course highly illegal. In fact, she has two plans, one of which will fund the other. It does not take a genius to realise that if she is gathering together a group of North Korean women who have been smuggled to South Korea via China, she is almost certainly intending to use them as surrogate mothers, and it doesn’t take much more effort to realise that her mysterious scientific endeavours almost certainly involve cloning, as proves to be the case. Thus, it’s also fairly obvious what parts Sydney and Damien will be contributing to this enterprise, not to mention the North Korean women themselves. These latter, with one exception, appear either to be blissfully unaware of what is to happen to them, or else they know, and are willing to accept the situation, given that it is an improvement on what they have left behind.
The two-dimensionality of the characters is baffling. I did wonder whether Foyle was trying to make some frightfully elegant point about genre fiction’s reliance on stock characters, but if so, I couldn’t quite see what it was. Possibly, she was trying to suggest that most people are driven by very banal impulses, and if that is the case, she certainly succeeded, as I found myself unable to take an interest in any of them beyond accepting that someone needed at any given point to be taking the plot forward.
And yet, Foyle still hints that all of them are driven characters even as she fails utterly to convince the reader of the fact. Fragments of back story rise like scum on a pot of stock, ready for the reader to assemble the narrative for herself if need be, and yet, in the end, there is still nothing there. Just like real life, you might say, but there is at least one reason why fiction is not that much like real life; it is so very, very tedious. Done slightly differently, Sydney’s naivety would be charming rather than annoying, and one might be more impressed with her efforts to make something of her life. Likewise, Damien’s poorly-articulated anxiety about impending apocalypse would perhaps draw a more sympathetic response from the reader. Given what he’s been through over the years, it’s no wonder he feels as he does, and who can blame him for wanting to get away? He is the slightly better developed character of the two, which is frankly not saying that much.
And I really do want to believe this is a specific creative choice, the reasons for which elude me, but in the end, they still just feel like poorly realised characters.
My second major complaint about Seoul Survivors concerns the story itself. There is almost never a moment when it is not entirely obvious what is going on, and what the outcome of the story is going to be. Occasionally, the narrative might seem as though it is about to head off in an unexpected direction, but just as the reader gets excited at the prospect of something different, the plot train switches back to the mainline, and we’re back where we were always going. Indeed, I could rewrite my complaints about the characters, inserting plot instead of character. Again, because it is so pervasive, I want to believe this is an authorial decision rather than the product of poor writing, but again, I cannot see what the point is. The actual story is remarkably conventional; it’s the stuff round the edges that is really interesting but round the edges is precisely where it stays. There is an argument for saying that it is as though Foyle has twisted a story inside out, and deliberately brought the banality of everyday life to the fore, leaving the interesting bits to glitter and catch the sidelong eye from time to time, but if that is the case, it was an ill-made choice.
I was interested, for example, in why Damien, after all those years, is still obsessed with his sister’s death. Instead, I get long descriptions of Damien’s one journey as a drug mule, including half a chapter on how he retrieves the drugs. It’s detailed, I’ll give it that much. There is much devoted to how Damien eschews sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, working hard if illegally to raise money to buy a forged passport.
I was interested too in why Sydney is so driven to make something of herself, establishing a modelling career in South Korea without quite understanding that it is the novelty of her whiteness that makes her so attractive, not any intrinsic talent she might possess. Sydney alas has all the depth of a bidet so instead there are long, almost stream-of-consciousness episodes in which Sydney debates dumping Johnny because the sex is getting too rough and he doesn’t treat her right, not like the Korean artists she’s meeting, who apparently value her for herself.
Johnny Sandman is clearly a psychopath and we might assume he is in South Korea because it’s safer than his being in Los Angeles but while we understand he has a hair trigger temper, an insatiable desire for sex and/or violence, and appears to live in a permanent state of arousal, I would like to have known more, if only to reassure myself that he wasn’t the cartoon character he appeared to be. Dr Kim, being an educated Asian woman, is inevitably unknowable, and thus she remains.
I am deeply uneasy too about the North Korean women, Mee hee and her friends, smuggled into South Korea, to become surrogate mothers for Dr Kim’s cloning scheme. They are represented as having been cast aside by their own society – widows, women who have lost children and so on – which might appear to justify their accepting a set-up where they can have the children they crave, even though they are, as only one girl perceptively realises, prisoners. She, of course, will come to a nasty end, thanks to Johnny Sandman, while the others, seemingly unaware, make merchandise for the gift shop for the virtual experience they are about produce children for. Yes, their collective lot might be better in that no one misses them at home, they are well-fed, well cared-for and happy, but they are also being exploited, unpaid, and nowhere in the novel is this addressed. In this novel the majority of the women, other than Dr Kim (who is so tough she appears to count as an honorary male for the duration), are very poorly treated. Sydney has agency of a sort, it is true, but it is very limited and relies on her using her body.
Seoul Survivors is marketed as a science-fiction novel but the science-fictionality of it seems to be rather thin. I note, though, that in various interviews and blog posts, Foyle has talked about a fascination with the domestic in science fiction, and I wonder if the banality, the allusiveness and unspoken assumptions is intended to suggest the ordinariness of the science-fictional world. The idea, I like, but if this is true, its execution leaves something to be desired, not least because we are not yet ready to accept wholesale cloning coupled with surrogacy as an ordinary thing, and the novel is set insufficiently far into the future for the local society to accept it as such. Dr Kim is working in South Korea because the local climate is amenable to this kind of thing, suggesting that elsewhere it is not.
Yet we already live in a world where the discovery of new exoplanets is no longer considered particularly newsworthy, though discoveries about the beginnings of the universe currently are (likewise the confirmation of the probable existence of the Higgs boson), and in a world where we suspect changes in the weather may be caused by global warming, all of which suggesting that the science-fictional can have the capacity to be very quickly absorbed into daily life. Similarly, most people didn’t pay that much attention to the alleged Mayan prophecy that the world would end on 21st December, 2012, trusting instead that the world’s astronomers would inform them if the Earth were about to be hit by an asteroid. I think, in Seoul Survivors, Foyle is trying to mimic some of that apparent insouciance, making the remarkable seem unremarkable, by using rather ignorant and incurious characters. However, her questioning characters, so far as they go, are also ignorant, so there is no sense of an informed critique being offered. Indeed, it turns out, while the surrogate mothers were being inseminated, the rest of the world was indeed being hit by a meteorite but luckily, tucked away in their valley fastness, they are safe from everything, including tsunamis, nuclear strikes, you name it, and all of this is tidied away in less than half a page.
I could go on but having beaten it flat already, it is perhaps time to look for the positive. The one thing that could be said for the novel is that Foyle writes very fluently. The story, however ludicrous its premise, mostly all slides together, at least until the end, when it does fall over quite spectacularly. Foyle is not very inventive in her prose style, but it has to be said that the graphic sex (and there’s a lot of it) is splendidly clichéd. (In between the orgasms, the seemingly endless orgasms, how a man can end up with ‘the tip of his cock sharp as a star inside her’ I do not know; and given Sydney’s enthusiasm for using condoms, one can only speculate as to the problems this might cause.) There is a curious simplicity and artlessness to most of the characters, the portrayal of Sydney in particular, that made me wonder if this wasn’t intended to be a young adult novel, at least until I got to the penises, which are invariably rock hard, or pausing only briefly in their flaccidity before becoming rock hard again. I can’t think how any of the men in this novel do any work; they must be in agony most of the time.
Whatever Foyle’s intentions for it, and from reading her interviews, I think she is quite sincere in her desire to write science fiction, and to be innovative in doing so, but this is nonetheless a disappointing novel.