Chana Porter’s new sci-fi novel The Seep explores who is welcome in Utopia — and who gets left behind
Trina Goldberg-Oneka is fifty-years-old when The Seep arrives. She throws a dinner party with her soon-to-be wife, Deeba, as the world braces themselves for The End. The guests carried on with their evening, unaware that The Seep had already entered their water supply. It enveloped them all, filling them with the overwhelming understanding that everything was going to be OK.
This gentle alien invasion was welcomed by Trina and Deeba, alongside everyone else who was high on The Seep. They felt joy, love, peace. Those left behind lounged in panic, despair, anger.
In this opening chapter, Chana introduces the consistent theme of her book; the complexity of human condition. We are asked to think, at the opening of Chapter 2 “…but were humans still humans without their worries?”.
Are they? What would life look like without worry? Would it be paradise — or would we feel incomplete without our history, our story, our identity that shapes who we are? Early on, Trina reflects on the failure of the Utopian experiment: “The Seep did love us, it wanted to create a perfect world… and this destroyed life as we know it.” As we accompany Trina on her profound journey through inexplicable grief, pain and addiction, we see how much truth this holds.
Under the haze of The Seep, Trina’s home becomes unrecognisable. Policeman hang up uniforms, money is abolished; nobody has to work now that poverty isn’t possible and poisoning the planet to spin a profit no longer makes sense to anybody. Hierarchies break down. Everything is unequivocally idyllic.
That is, until Trina’s wife announces she wants to be a baby again. You see, The Seep helps humans to transcend their mortal bodies. People alter themselves at will. Modify themselves to have a cats tongue, angel wings. In this futuristic paradise, Trina gets left behind. She keeps her old clothes, her face, her old world views. She becomes bored with being high. She misses culture created while humans thought they were mortal. Art had becomes bland. It’s lost its bite, without a little hardship, a little tension.
So when her wife tells her she wanted to be parented again, and , Trina vehemently opposes. And so, Deeba chooses to die, to be reborn in another life.
Drowning in unspeakable grief, Trina recedes into herself, cutting herself off from The Seep and the world it had invaded. She begins drinking, a lot. She stops going to work, seeing friends. Stops caring about anything.
This is a story of identity, of what it means to us. Trina is a Trans woman. She fought for a body that matched how she felt, so she is understandably unnerved by all those around her who are changing form as easy as we now change our hair colour. This lack of regard for who we are questions whether identity is rendered meaningless in such Utopian depictions.
Her self imposed isolation isn’t welcomed in this Utopia. People can’t understand; in a place where you can be anything, why would you choose to be a depressed alcoholic? Trina doesn’t have to feel this pain. She can choose to have it taken away, utterly eradicated by The Seep. But she doesn’t. The grief hurts, but its her pain. The memories are raw, but they are her memories.
I’ve been depressed for as long as I can remember. Sometimes I wonder if I was born sad, anxious over-thinking etched into my genes. From days spent in bed, to public teary outbursts, years lost to starving and harming myself…. I often wonder about the extent that mental illness has held me back. When I think about Utopias, I question whether such neurodiverse brains would be welcomed — or even wanted by those who have them.
Where would I be in life, if I hadn’t had to spend so much time in and out of therapy, sitting for hours in A&E as I struggle through antidepressant withdrawal? Who would I even be without this constant voice of dread, belittling me at every turn?
I look at genuinely happy people — like my partner, who has never dealt with a mental health issue, and is baffled by the intensity of my emotions — and I am jealous. I am envious of his ability to wake up and not dread the day ahead of him. When I am at my lowest, I just want it to stop. The pain. The self-hatred. The worry. The fear. The voice telling me I’m worthless, telling me to end it all.
Then some days,the prospect of getting out of bed doesn’t tower above me like a mountain I cannot scale. Living feels possible, even desirable. Memories of my darkest days linger, but they make those bright days even sweeter. Life isn’t paradise. Sure, I wish I could take the pain away from those who chose to take their life when it becomes too much, and I wish I didn’t have to watch my friends suffer through an inadequate healthcare system. This is evidence enough that Chana’s Seep filled Utopia is speculative fiction, far from our often grey reality. But then, if given the chance, I’m not sure I actually would choose a life without my sadness. Because I can’t get away from the gnawing sense that this would dull my joy. That it would strip me of a -albeit unwanted — part of my identity. And I know that reaching for that Utopian euphoria is possible, without being high on an alien entity.
China Porter’s The Seep is available online.
What would your Utopia look like? Do you think mental illness has a role to play in Utopian fiction and narratives? let me know in the comments