In The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, Death Is a Reality Show

The 1974 science-fiction novel by D.G. Compton predicted a future where even the most private moments are broadcast as entertainment.

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Sometimes a novel is so complex it’s simple. Take D. G. Compton’s science-fiction work The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe. The book chronicles the dystopian adventures of a woman who’s told she has four weeks to live in a world where death from incurable diseases has been virtually eliminated. Compton builds an intricately imagined and believable near future not so different from our own, complete with wildly popular reality shows that feed the appetite of a public described as “pain-starved.”

The story is told in chapters that alternate between Katherine’s point of view and the first-person account of Roddie, the host of one such TV program, Human Destiny. As soon as Katherine receives her diagnosis, Roddie is on the hunt, his production company tasked with getting her to agree to become the 24-7 subject of a voyeuristic reality show. From the first time Roddie, incognito, meets Katherine in the church where she’s hidden to escape the repercussions of having signed away her rights to privacy, Compton asks questions about trust, betrayal, and public versus private selves with unexpected nuance and humanity. Roddie may be the “bad guy” here, but he grows to respect Katherine while also being just as in thrall to a dysfunctional society.

At its heart, however, Compton’s book is about two essential predicaments of the human condition: mortality and love. Harkening back to social realist novels by the likes of Theodore Dreiser, Compton’s structure methodically but brilliantly exposes Katherine to different strata of society as she reckons with her diagnosis and Roddie reckons with the man his job has made him. Compton offers not only a wise story and a chilling appraisal of society that still rings true, but also an indelible portrait of an intelligent, middle-aged woman grappling with the ultimate existential crisis: How should one conduct oneself while dying?

Published in 1974 during an era of political and social upheaval, a quiet novel like The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe might have looked, at the time, out of step, or insufficiently radical. The Cold War had turned hot in Vietnam, college campuses from the United States to France were seeing a series of activist-sparked uprisings that transformed or failed to transform society, and terrorist groups like Baader-Meinhof took the bluntest approach to dissent. It was an anxious time—people worried about the environment, racism, the status of women. New technologies that seemingly transformed everyday life were introduced: In 1971, the CAT scan was field-tested; in 1974, supermarkets began to use bar codes; in 1975, the first home computers made an appearance.

Katherine Mortenhoe appeared during a fertile period of speculative production. Early 1970s movies included Solaris, Slaughterhouse-Five, Silent Running, Soylent Green, A Clockwork Orange, and The Andromeda Strain. Among the novels of the day were Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and the first English translation of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Hard to Be a God, while important work by Philip K. Dick, Joe Haldeman, and Ursula K. Le Guin followed not long after. Only a few years later, Hollywood blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars would commodify not just the film industry but also, eventually, parts of the market for science-fiction novels as well.

Most of Compton’s speculative peers were looking outward in their work, toward alien encounters or stories that played out across vast vistas of time and space—and most of the counterculture media would have seemed more revolutionary. A Clockwork Orange, for example, contains scenes that on first glance are similar to those in Katherine Mortenhoe in how they comment on society, though they’re more direct and flamboyant and, perhaps, cruel.

Yet Katherine Mortenhoe remains as relevant today as more obvious classics from the 1970s. This is largely because the novel stands apart from its times, but it is also because it displays an astonishingly easy intimacy and interiority. These are the hardest effects for a novelist to achieve, and all too often novels that critique media take on a metallic patina, a shell-like hardness as a result of this lack of fluidity. Katherine Mortenhoe isn’t a symbol set in silhouette against the klieg lights of a dysfunctional society: She’s a living, breathing person. Her gift for sussing out the emotional states and motivations of those close to her as she nears death—what they’re really saying, what they really want—is both remarkable and ordinary.

What’s ordinary is that most people have this ability to read those around them. What’s remarkable is Compton’s ability to describe it. His psychological acuity is one of several elements that sets his book apart from cultural artifacts that do no more than evoke nostalgia for received ideas of a mod-era England. In Katherine Mortenhoe this tendency appears briefly only once or twice—especially in a scene involving rich swingers, and even here Compton wisely subverts the hackneyed idea of a ’70s drug orgy. Instead of indulging in the excess, or giving any of it a sensual sheen, there’s a sad lack of intimacy and vagueness that suggests actors going through the motions. Katherine’s mortality, revealed in the midst of what is meant to be hedonistic revelry, isn’t so much a buzz-kill as it is the blossoming of a truth that makes all the rest seem fake.

Physical evidence of her sickness has a similar effect on waylaying bikers in another set piece. Confronted with the real real, the fake real—the constructions by which groups or individuals enact ritual to get what they want, or even to try to forget the simple, basic truth that everybody dies—is torn apart or rendered inert, without agency.

Interiority and intimacy push back against nostalgia by placing the reader always in the present, continuous moment. By grounding the story in the human dimension, these qualities open a space for the themes of the novel that are directly concerned with the superhuman, with media and machine. Roddie, who as we learn early on has been implanted with a camera that records all he sees, is “the man with the TV eyes.” He and his boss Vincent are the 1970s equivalent of today’s most parasitical reality show creators and hosts. Their world is an uncanny mirror of our own, of an age in which everyone really is a camera eye, or at least carries one around in his pocket.

And just like today, the communication is two-way for Roddie. Things come through the screen in our modern life all the time now and infect us. We let the pixels that gather to form images or words affect us mentally and physically—we let that happen, we in many cases wish for it happen. We, in a sense, allow a kind of hypnosis to occur, by which we are then transformed, not always in positive ways. Compton suggests that those closest to the epicenter of the ubiquitous image-making, people like Roddie and Vincent who manufacture it and benefit from it, are those who suffer its greatest deformation: “The state of communion withered. The bones beneath these people’s faces were just as true, and the heroism just as possible, but the people themselves were recently constructed, totally alien. They were NTV [network] people.”

In an age in which privacy isn’t just vanishing but willfully renounced, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe seems not only relevant but proactively current. Katherine’s motivations and reactions and thoughts about her world are familiar but not trite. They include the questions we are only beginning to puzzle out: What should I share? What is my private self apart from my public self? How do I get off the grid? How does what I share affect those around me? Why do I feel like part of me has to die for another part of me to be revealed? And while the book is set before the existence of an ever-flowing social-media stream, it depicts a society in which it’s possible to become media: Roddie is literally transformed into a recording and broadcasting device. The book forecasts a world in which people crave virtual emotion; they have to feel feelings much like vampires have to drink blood.

The great trap awaiting novelists who embark on a critique of media—new or old—is one Baudrillard might have recognized as the pop-culture consumerist hegemony. The observer becomes devoured by the thing being observed and the results are so broad, lurid, salacious, and in all ways colonized by the corruptor that object or character and backdrop merge. Compton’s terrible insight, into both Katherine’s interior world and—through an account that amounts to a confession—into Roddie’s view of events, shows us that interiority can trump the voyeuristic tendencies of the camera, the coarsening that would have otherwise leached away the private, the personal.

Few fictions, in theory, date faster than novels that grapple with media, except perhaps films on the subject. Furthermore, of late it’s become clear that novels incorporating the very latest media—text messages, Facebook comment threads—tend to be compromised by such inclusions. The surrounding text seems poor in texture, devoid of richness. Perhaps this is because, as John Durham Peters writes in The Marvelous Clouds, “We live in a palimpsest of new and old. Despite occasional prophecies of decline, the most fundamental media are still with us.” But perhaps instead, as he further notes, media is still learning not to be afraid to die, and that detachment, not documentation, is key.

If nothing degrades or evolves faster than media, then nothing can seem less epic in scope than the intimate details of an individual’s death—especially the death of a citizen who isn’t a great civic leader or historical figure. But in this regard, too, Katherine Mortenhoe seems even more important today than when it was published. In a very real sense, the progress of Katherine’s deterioration, the societal denial of death itself carries the novel forward into the modern era.

Big themes, like love and death, are what we say we value in our best literature. But in fact, the best novels about love or death often go unappreciated; they make us too uncomfortable. Great writers, like D. G. Compton, understand, too, that the unfolding reality of an important theme never exists at some portentous or weighty level; it can only come to life within the deft, nimble specific details of character and setting.

Perhaps the greatest testimonial to The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe and the power of an interior life is its strength in comparison to the 1980 film version, Death Watch. An earnest attempt, the film hasn’t dated well in some ways and can never match the intimate interiority of the text. You could argue this falls to the choice of director and cast, or something in the script, but I think that in writing a commentary on our relationship to media, the public world, and the dangers and limitations of an ever-watchful recording eye, Compton hasn’t just written a masterpiece. He’s also written something that is, ironically enough, deeply and forever unfilmable. There will always be an inner world that no one can see and that cannot be expressed except through the medium of words.

This article has been adapted from the introduction to D.G. Compton’s reissued book, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe.