Monday, 30 April 2018

Watchers, by Dean Koontz

I've read Watchers a few times, and love the concept, though I am a bit more critical of it nowadays.

It certainly has all the ingredients of a tense plot, all the pieces lined up to fall over at the end. It does some things well, some things very well. It works as a story. And it has a charming character in Einstein, who only says a handful of things in the book yet still steals the show. If you want to read a thriller, then this is a fairly good one. I'm torn between 3 and 4 stars. I'll go with my gut instinct of 4, because I always prefer to err on the side of generosity.

Where it drops the ball for me is in not going far enough. There's a noticeable authorial voice between the lines; and the beliefs it betrays, as with those made more overt in the plot, are those of an attempt to push at a boundary. But it does not go far enough, does not question enough, does not realise that it has pushed a bit but then created a new arbitrary boundary. If it pushed harder it would have been more true to its central thesis, and could have achieved much more.

I often ask what the values are underlying a work, as illustrated by the way it portrays happiness. Here, it is pretty standard Koontz (based on the books I've read). Success = a manly heterosexual man, paired with a less active woman (but who is a good home-maker), seeking monogamy/marriage with the ultimate goal of having children. There is no questioning of those values anywhere in the book, or even recognition that they are particular viewpoint - the underlying impression is that no other alternatives can be conceived. That's not a criticism, just a clarification of how the core values never drift far from what is seen as a predominantly conservative set of views. At the end of the novel the female protagonist is making apple pie. In another location a pair of men are "tending to the steaks on the barbecue" while "their wives made salads in the kitchen". This is the happy ending. It is presented without irony.

Many books are from this viewpoint - probably most books. Culture (mass media, entertainment etc.) is often presented in ways that will appeal to the biggest market, for maximum profit. In turn, that widespread prevalence creates the impression that there are no alternatives, and this is "normal". Again, it's not necessarily a criticism, though I do think the bias should be perceived by both creator, distributor, and consumer - otherwise, without perceiving the cultural values for what they are, it can lead to close-mindedness and perception of all other values as being "lesser", rather than just alternatives. A book that praises "the ingenuity of man" can become irony if that self-understanding is not then present in the text.

Back to the book. With this book Koontz tries to challenge a few values. You can see him doing that, and perhaps thinking he is being transgressive, making big changes. But in each case it is a tiny shift while following the same line, and does not follow through or recognise how much further the questioning could have gone. Okay, an example.

The plot involves Government experiments on different beings. In this case, putting human minds in non-human bodies. It involves death, failures, murders, suffering, madness, enslavement, enough money to cure a range of problems if spent differently, and much more. The author makes it clear that there is immorality involved. I'd agree. But he can't take it to the logical conclusion - and, as if in panic when he realises that the implication is that the same things apply to all non-human experimentation, he feels the need to suddenly have a character give us a mini-lecture from the point of view of those who exploit beings in this way. Watchers involves characters who take an experimental animal and keep it from the Government - it is not portrayed as "stealing", or "ruining years of important research" - because we have seen that the things referred to are a form of injustice, and we have been allowed to see things from the sufferer's perspective. But the author wants to have his cake and eat it, so he undercuts the whole point of the novel by having a character that we are supposed to respect say "People who raid labs and steal animals, ruining years of important research ... they make me want to spit." (He goes on to actually state that revering life is "ignorant" and "savage".) Whoa. Talk about being blind to the concept of hypocrisy. It doesn't even touch on the fact that the majority of animal research is profit-motivated (from the race to patent, to the "me-too" generic pharma industry). It's as if the author wants to question things, but then to suddenly fall back into accepting them; to claim that the overall thrust is not a questioning of concepts, but making a special case for the cute dog who can act as lucrative product placement for the rich Disney Corp in the inevitable film version.

Remember I said that the underlying author views were mainstream? (In this case, mainstream US.) Here's an example. The author is trying to think of examples of goodness to use in a simile. He suggests "feed the hungry or nurse the sick"; no argument there; but they come second place to "build a business empire" as an example of the most "worthwhile and commendable" goals. That's the protestant ethic of capitalism for you! Most people would see the generic goal of "business empires" as profit-driven (and, as stated in that generic way, inherently selfish - very different from, for example, building an ethical co-operative). Yet here, it is unquestioningly given as a specific example of goodness that is _higher_ than selflessly helping those in need (in that it is the first in the list, the first thing to pop into thought). Viewed from outside the unconscious cultural values of the author, it can seem bizarre. Though that continues - the character who makes that bizarre interjection speech about wanting to spit is a vet who is portrayed as loving dogs. So what does he want to do? Turn his dog into a breeder "and maybe wind up with some nice puppies to sell later".  Breed dogs to sell for profit. Despite there being no shortage of unwanted dogs in shelters desperate for homes before they are destroyed, the predominant value for this character is breeding more, and profiting financially from it. Mmm.

One more example of the mainstream views: celebrating Christmas. In one speech it is actually equated with "life", and nowhere does the text acknowledge the overt shift from religious meaning to one of force-fed consumerism (even though the book shows the level of it, equating spending money on unnecessary consumer goods as being the same as loving someone, and refusing to see over-consumption as a possibly bad thing - those big companies and business empires have sure done their work on indoctrinating all these characters). People can do what they want, but we should always be able to trace where values come from, and what they really are. It's part of being responsible.

So we have a story that seems to push at boundaries, to question things, but which pulls back from any genuine commitment to the line of enquiry. It's similar to the difference between the viewpoints of animal welfare/vegetarianism ("it is okay to exploit other beings for our own ends, but we should try to be a bit nicer about it, and kill less") - which represents a shift, but not a qualitative change, from mainstream speciesism - and the viewpoint of animal rights ("we should not exploit other beings for our own ends, and rights should be regardless of sex, age, species, intelligence, skin colour, sexual preference etc. etc."). The novel shifts slightly in that it says the application of value should not be on the arbitrary basis of species; but instead of questioning all arbitrary values, it simply picks another one (in this case, intelligence) as a means to assign rights. Obviously this is pre-Singer.

One other annoyance - it regularly has chocolate being given to dogs as a "treat". That's quite surprising when the author acknowledges himself as a dog lover. The chocolate consumed by humans is often highly toxic and poisonous to dogs.

There's one other element I'd like to touch on: antagonists. This book has two. One is a hitman. One is the creature known as The Outsider. A problem for the author is that The Outsider is far away from the main characters for most of the novel, which is probably why the hitman was needed as a more imminent and portrayable threat. But The Outsider is a double-edged villain, because it is also a victim. It suffers deformity; it is aware of how people feel revulsion when facing it; yet it is intelligent. It has been imbued with killing urges it never wanted. Like Frankenstein's monster, it is an intelligent being cursed by its creator. It is a victim. It does some horrible things, though far fewer than those done by many humans. By the end it is "whimpering and hugging itself"; it is in pain, and taught itself to say so; it possibly showed pity on another creature and temporarily overcame the nature that had been forced into it by humans. And yet, on the previous page, the novel's main protagonist (through whose eyes the author wants us to see most of the story) describes it as "an enemy of unparalleled evil". Hold on a minute. Unparalleled? It is described as the most evil thing that is possible to exist? More than anything else, this made me question the authorial voice, because that description would apply more accurately to the military scientists performing these experiments on intelligent beings, with the goal of being able to kill other humans more efficiently. But the text falls back on black-and-white extremities, with the worst vilification applied to a victim. I didn't like that.

When I was fifteen and first read the book, I didn’t think so deeply about what is said overtly in books, and what is also said between the lines. As an adult, I’m more critical. But that doesn’t mean this wouldn’t be a 5* book for you.