The Book of Malachi, T.C. Farren (Titan 978-1-78909-519-7, $14.95, 336pp, trade paperback) November 2020.
Tracey Farren has given the world two previous novels under that byline. Whiplash (2008), which was filmed as Tess (2016); and Snake (2011). Both were from the small South African publisher Modjaji Books, and, from description and appearances, were naturalistic tales. Now comes her third novel under the appellation of T.C. Farren, and it’s from a much larger firm, Titan Books. Moreover, it’s not mimetic fiction, but SF. In some sense, then, her third novel could be seen as her debut on a certain stage. As such, the book displays immense craft, talent, forcefulness, and the assured handling of a small suite of speculative novums. It’s a grim small-scale dystopia with a nucleus of sunshine at its center.
That gleaming nucleus of hope and possibility is the title character, Malachi Dakwaa. A young Black man of roughly 30, Malachi is a refugee from violence in his native African land. There, 15 years in the past, rebel forces killed all of Malachi’s family and fellow villagers. They left Malachi as the sole witness to the slaughter—after removing his tongue. Mute for all this time, Malachi has ended up in the West, and now works as a manual laborer in a poultry-processing plant, living in a crummy SRO hostel. His future prospects are limited and bleak, but he persists.
Gradually entering a day-after-tomorrow scenario, we will inhabit his consciousness utterly, as he narrates a very fraught week or so in his life, and we will learn much about his character and past. (His backstory emerges piecemeal, in mental ruminations, almost like unbidden reruns of the horror.) Malachi is clever and intelligent, viewing his environment almost with a poet’s faculties, but he blames himself for the slaughter of his compatriots—why, and however justly, the reader will learn and decide. He is also damaged sexually, getting his satisfaction only through a kink related to his suffering. (A vibe similar to Delany’s famous tale, “Aye, and Gomorrah” buzzes thereby.) All these factors render him the quintessential outsider. But the job he is about to take will push him even further, to the limits of human alienation.
Malachi is approached by the hiring rep for a firm named Frasier. They offer him the position of—well, let’s call it “hygiene attendant” at a top-secret facility. The irresistible payment? Surgical restoration of his tongue, via a top-notch organ graft in a treatment usually reserved only for the elite.
Malachi consents to the Faustian bargain. He is ‘coptered out to a repurposed deep-sea platform. (Add this book to the tiny subgenre of SF set on floating structures, such as Roger Levy’s The Rig.) Here he meets his fellow employees, a brilliantly sketched lot of fellow misfits. Tamba, a flippant hipster, who works a certain control booth. Romano, the platform’s tough but fair security guard. Janeé, the company cook whose well-intentioned but bizarre recipes are uniquely off-putting. Olivia, the by-the-rules physician. Meirong, the heartless Asian supervisor. And now Malachi learns why they are all here.
Forty death-row criminals from various global prisons lie naked in cages, and replacement organs—hearts, arteries, Malachi’s tongue—are being grown inside them, later to be surgically harvested. Malachi’s job is to tend to their chemical-laden bodies, clipping fingernails, washing them, etc.
But the subjects are also fully conscious, and Malachi is forced to listen to their complaints, excuses, seductions, and rants. But despite their past crimes and their current awfulness, he begins to see through to their core humanity, and must make a decision: to try to end this horrific program, or not?
Immediately, one sees the power of Farren’s setup. Classically speaking, it’s Dante’s Inferno, a tour of hell with sinners suffering the unique punishments for their life histories. And indeed, Farren individualizes a subset of the 40 prisoners in a vivid way that lets the reader contemplate the nature of criminality and the ways in which society takes it revenge. The question of justice versus mercy gets a thorough airing.
On a genre level, the book evokes four great predecessors. Most obvious is Cordwainer Smith’s “A Planet Named Shayol”, wherein a planetary penal colony hosts victims whose teratoma-filled bodies serve the greater good. Next comes Tom Disch’s Camp Concentration, with its allied riff of government experimentation to produce unethical results. Third, Malachi finds himself living the quandary of Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”. Does mass utilitarian good justify injury to individuals, especially if said individuals are vile outlaws to begin with? And lastly, the in-your-face explicit body-horror aspect of Farren’s tale evokes the grotesqueries of Michel Faber’s Under the Skin.
All of this is a lot of meaty (pun intentional) material for the reader to savor, but any kind of textbook parsing of these issues is blown away by Malachi’s narrative voice, vivid, colorful, and anchored in sensory reality. “I stare at the giant’s penis crushed against the crosswires beneath him. His testicles are imprinted with the gridiron pattern of latitude and longitude, the rational rules the giant loved so much. North and South, left and right—and now so terribly wrong.”
A final aspect of the book to enjoy is the very delimited setting and timeframe, which hark to a play-like theatrical mode. Additionally, much of the dialogue has a kind of off-kilter non-sequitur taste. Taken together, these factors render the book akin to a play by Pinter or Beckett.
The book explodes from its horrific, mesmerizing stasis in the final 30 or so pages, transforming to thriller mode. Malachi makes an unlikely action hero, but his hard-won victory proves all the more resonant for that unlikeliness. His actions become his missing voice.
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