My favourite part of science fiction is the philosophical quandary at the root. After all, science fiction simply asks ‘What if?’ In Rachel Heng’s new novel from Hodder, Suicide Club, she asks ‘What if we actually achieved immortality?’ Mortals have always strived to conquer death, but would it really deliver on all our hopes? What would happen to our society if we lived forever? Perhaps it is the philosophy graduate in me, but I love novels that ask the hard questions.
I asked Rachel why she loves speculative fiction and what is exciting her most in the current genre landscape.
Suicide Club publishes on the 10th of July.
Your short fiction has crossed genres and style. Why did you decide to work in speculative fiction for Suicide Club?
The genre was a natural outcome of the question that sparked the idea for Suicide Club: what if we could live forever? I wanted to create a universe that took certain things in our world – wellness culture, the commodification of healthcare, life expectancy inequality – to their extremes, and that could only be done in speculative fiction. As you mention, I write both realist and speculative fiction. I’ve always loved the latter for all the possibilities it affords, for the blank canvas and ability to imagine entire worlds.
The quest for immortality has long featured in science fiction and fantasy and it rarely ends well. Why does immortality tend to go hand-in-hand with dystopias?
I think immortality has featured so often in dystopias because death remains the age-old problem that humankind has been unable to solve. A utopian world where we could, at last, solve it. Therefore it seems especially alluring, and most dystopias are, at their hearts, utopias gone wrong.
Your novel features a female protagonist. What were some of the problematic tropes around female protagonists you hoped to avoid or invert?
I really dislike the notion that a female protagonist has to be ‘likeable’ or ‘relatable’. This is something that has been discussed endlessly and subverted by amazing writers like Claire Messud and Ottessa Moshfegh, yet somehow I am still having conversations with people who say things like they didn’t like the biologist in Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation because she seemed ‘like a psychopath’. She didn’t seem at all like a psychopath to me, just a self-possessed woman with great intelligence, ambition and her own flaws, like any other human being.
Male protagonists are allowed to be distant, inaccessible, flawed humans but somehow we expect female protagonists to always be open and vulnerable and utterly selfless. Society still places the burden of emotional labour on women, and this shows up in the expectations we have of female protagonists. I definitely hope to avoid this in Suicide Club. My protagonist, Lea, is not particularly ‘likeable’ at the start of the book – some readers have called her ‘cold’ – but I hope to have presented her in all her human complexity, and I hope that readers will afford her the same recognition and empathy for this complexity as they would a male protagonist.
What contemporary speculative fiction writers or trends are you excited about?
I am very excited about Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure. I’ve been a fan of her writing since reading her short fiction in The White Review and can’t wait to read her novel. Sadly it’s not out in the US yet so I’m going to have to wait! One trend I’m really excited about is the absolutely banging speculative short story collections that are being published today. I loved Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body And Other Parties and have on my TBR list collections by Lesley Nneka Arimah (What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky) and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Friday Black).
What makes Suicide Club unique? Pitch the novel to our readers!
Suicide Club is a speculative novel about immortality, organ trading and cold-press juicing gone mad, but it also about female friendship, the mortality of our parents and how to let go of those we love. If you like literary dystopian fiction with big ideas, Black Mirror-esque worlds, strong female protagonists and moving family dramas, I hope you’ll consider reading Suicide Club!
Rachel Heng is a Singaporean novelist and short story writer. Rachel’s fiction has received a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, Prairie Schooner‘s Jane Geske Award, and has been recommended by The Huffington Post, NYLON, Book Riot and The Independent. She was recently featured by The Independent (UK) in the article ‘The Emerging Authors To Look Out For in 2018‘ has been interviewed by The Straits Times and The Rumpus. Rachel’s short stories have been published or are forthcoming in Glimmer Train, The Offing, Prairie Schooner, The Adroit Journal, the minnesota review and elsewhere. She has been the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, the National Arts Council of Singapore and the Michener Center for Writers.