Final Rating: Five cups of amnesia-ridden tea.
When I first picked this book up at the library, I was dubious. The synopsis and the snippets all touted this novel as some sort of deep experience that would, supposedly, “challenge what it means to be human.” Which, OK, great. Problem is, Octavia Butler’s Mind of My Mind had pretty much already done this, and managed it with a visceral efficiency that I feel can’t really be matched. With so many similar plot points–someone who is able to control the thoughts and actions of another, someone who takes residence in our mortal brains to do as they please–you can imagine how I might be worried that this was going to be poor imitation of something that had already been achieved.
But my doubts were quickly wiped away as I started reading. The hook is immediate, and well-crafted. Better still, unlike so many books with a sharp opening, Touch doesn’t just get you invested then leave you wandering in a yawning chasm of exposition. The pacing is excellent, using short-burst chapters to create a sense of urgency and interest that kept me up past my bedtime several times. There’s a sort of…journalistic feel to this book that I found appealing. You’re never given too much or too little explanation; everything is revealed when it needs to be and not a moment before. I appreciate someone who can wield exposition with such precision, especially given the sci-fi genre’s tendency to over-rely on the “info dump” to get its point across.
Speaking of which, Touch is very much not an adventure in technobabble. This is a book that is almost exclusively about experience: What it’s like to be the protagonist, and what it’s like to be the protagonist as they become the people they inhabit. It’s sort of like listening to someone at a party relate a story that starts with, “You won’t believe what happened to me this one time…” except multiply that across centuries and across hundreds–maybe even thousands– of different “hosts”. How the protagonist, “Kepler”, and the other ghosts are able to achieve this state of being, no one really knows, not even the ghosts themselves. And I’m grateful that Touch doesn’t really take much to explain it: In such situations I either need to know every single detail, or I need to know none at all. As it stands, Touch‘s plot and characters provide more than enough interest that I didn’t need the explanation. What little information is revealed was valuable to me because it was valuable to the characters–they pieced things together in their own way, using what was useful and discarding the rest. I appreciate that.
As for how I personally felt about the book…honestly, it was such a unique experience for me that I’m not sure how to describe it. There were definitely elements of Touch that I’ve seen in other novels and sci-fi TV shows, but somehow it manages to borrow those moments without relying on them to create an entirely new experience–at least for me. I have very little to compare it to, nor am I entirely sure how to articulate what I loved so much about it. But I did love it, and it’s one of those books I’m pretty sure I’ll never forget. It was gripping, and moving, and sometimes just damned funny even as the characters all plunged into darkness. There was even a tragic love story woven in. What more could you ask for?
One thing I can point to specifically that I appreciated about Touch was how it delves into how different we all are, as people: Kepler is able to experience each person’s body just as the original hosts would, except that Kepler has centuries of experience to compare it to. How different would our lives be, the author quietly asks, if we were able to reference our aches and pains and anxieties against the experiences of those around us? Would we still accept them as normal? Or would we finally be able to realize that no, we don’t have to keep suffering just to survive–we can ask for help and watch our whole lives turn on their head. There’s never any judgement, either…Kepler has their personal preferences for what kinds of bodies they find comfortable to inhabit–as do all of the ghosts–but such preferences are usually based on things like “Do my knees ache? Do I have all my teeth? Is my back hairy? Does this body smoke?”
Kepler never looks down on anyone they inhabit, no matter what their circumstances are. In fact, Kepler usually does their best to make sure that their host has adequate compensation for the time that Kepler has “stolen”; there are also several cases of Kepler going out of their way to right wrongs that their host has caused. My favorite example of this is when Kepler takes on a commission to inhabit a serial rapist who has repeatedly escaped from the law, and make sure that he’s put somewhere he can never hurt anyone again. The fact that Kepler, an amoral creature with no real investment in humanity besides taking hosts to survive, genuinely cares about this circumstance was important to me. Not only do I love to watch such people burn, but I have a weakness for immortal beings that try their best to be moral even when they don’t have to be; in my opinion there’s no better way to examine the edges of what’s ethical than to take death out of the equation. (And yes, technically Kepler can be killed, but it’s difficult.)
Touch may not have caused me to reexamine what it means to be human, but it was definitely a fun, moving experience that was important to me. It’s a book that’s full of rich detail, tension, and love–the perfect recipe. I highly recommend getting a copy if you can, and I’ll definitely be exploring further works by this author in the future.