Sunday, August 15, 2021

Cordwainer Smith Award Review: The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, by D. G. Compton

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, by D. G. Compton

a review by Rich Horton

This weekend, at Readercon 31 (in a virtual sense), the 2021 Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award was given to David Guy Compton, who wrote his SF as D. G. Compton. (He also wrote crime fiction as Guy Compton, and romances as Frances Lynch.) The jury this year comprised Grant Thiessen, Steven H Silver, and myself. This was our first year on the jury, succeeding Robert J. Sawyer and Barry Malzberg, who resigned last year after many years of service. (Their fellow juror, Mike Resnick, had died before last year's selection was made.) 

We discuss our selection in this video. Short version -- he was an exceptional writer of generally low-key SF (mostly novels), focussed on character and on social themes. The bulk of his work appeared between 1965 and 1980, though after an eight year absence he returned with 5 more novels between 1988 and 1996, plus an outlier short story in 2001. He was born in 1930, and is still alive, though he doesn't appear to be writing. He has been active in the assisted suicide movement. Though born and long resident in the UK, according to information in the 2015 NYRB Books reissue of this novel, he was at that time living in Maine.

The Continous Katherine Mortenhoe, from 1974, is probably Compton's best known novel. This is partly because of the 1979 film adaptation, Death Watch, directed by Bertrand Tavernier, and starring Romy Schneider and Harvey Keitel; but also because it's an outstanding book -- my personal favorite of Compton's oeuvre. It was first published in the US as The Unsleeping Eye (a Don Wollheim title change, and not inappropriate though less good than the original title.) Inevitably there were also editions titled Death Watch. My edition is the 1980 Pocket Books reprint, also called The Unsleeping Eye, and curiously copyrighted 1979, which is either an error, or reflective of revisions Compton may have made, either as a result of the movie, or of his 1979 sequel, Windows

The book is set in the relatively near future -- probably in our past as of 2021. Katherine Mortenhoe is a woman in her 40s. She has been diagnosed with a terminal disease, and given a month or so to live. This is extremely unusual for the world of this novel, as almost all diseases are curable, and no one dies except by old age (or violence.) The other main character, Roddie, is a TV reporter who has had a camera surgically implanted, so that anything he sees is recorded. He is assigned to get close to Katherine Mortenhoe, in order to record her final days for a sort of "reality TV show". (This particular bit of speculation by Compton seems very prescient now.) Katherine is at first very resistant, but she is worn down over time as her fate becomes widely known, and it becomes clear that her privacy is lost no matter what she does.

Katherine works in "the Romance division of Computabooks" -- apparently making revisions to computer-generated novels. (Her rackety father, we eventually learn, is also a writer -- of what seems to be trashy SF, in a sly swipe by Compton at his own preferred genre.) She has urges to write her own realistic novel. She is married to a rather colorless man named Harry, and their marriage is shortly coming up for renewal. Her previous marriage, to Gerald Mortenhoe, ended when he declined to renew. Her problem is that she seems totally out of touch with contemporary life -- and her doctor theorizes that this psychological issue has leaked into her physiological problems, causing her uncurable illness.

Katherine's reaction to her plight is primarly to attempt to escape -- not to escape death, which in essence she seems to embrace, but to escape the sort of ordinary life she had been living, and also of course to escape the intrusive TV focus. She has to elude Harry, but cannot elude Roddie -- who she doesn't know (and who doesn't obviously seem a TV journalist, as his camera is invisible.) So both of them end up with the "Fringies" (essentially, this future society's poor, homeless, and unemployed.) And then they find themselves at the estate of a very rich man, who is having a party/orgy. And they are threatened by nihilistic criminals. Throughout all this Roddie is entirely altering his view of his own job -- and his feelings for Katherine Mortenhoe. And Katherine is becoming, it seems, more and more herself.

There are some plotty twists that I won't reveal, except to say that the unavoidable destiny of the novel's characters cannot be changed. Other characters -- Roddie's boss, Katherine's doctor, her ex-husband, Roddie's ex-wife, Katherine's father -- come into view, and all these viewpoints coalesce to depict this rather interesting and sociologically convincing future more fully -- and more darkly. Katherine is a wholly believable character, and Roddie is interesting and worth following, if, I thought, not quite as convincing. The resolution -- even as its general shape is clear from the getgo -- is quite powerful, quite moving. This is a major novel, and while it wouldn't be correct to say that it was ignored -- it got a fair amount of notice -- it still deserves more attention, and deserves to stand among the key SF novels of the 1970s.


  1. A deserving winner and a wonderful novel! Of his works, I find Farewell, Earth's Bliss (1968) the most underrated.

    "Katherine works in "the Romance division of Computabooks" -- apparently making revisions to computer-generated novels."

    I really should start compiling a list of SF works on writing in the future. At one point I had a list with at least 12 other vintage SF works but I seem to have lost it.

    1. It should be 1966 for Farewell, Earth's Bliss. Alas.

    2. Well, I made some much worse flubs in the original post above -- fixed now!

      Grant Thiessen mentioned FAREWELL, EARTH'S BLISS as a particular favoite of his (at least in our discussions, if it didn't come up in the video.) To my shame, I haven't yet read it, but I plan to get to it soon.

  2. NYRB is quietly putting a lot of great sf back into print. I just grabbed their edition of David Bunch's Moderan.