Reviewed: Every Version of You, Grace Chan, Affirm Press
In Grace Chan’s debut novel Every Version of You, it’s 2087 and the climate catastrophe is in full swing. The Yarra has dried up, yet even in the oppressive heat, Melburnians must wear full PPE to shield themselves from dust, illness and radiation should they choose to venture outside. More often than not, they don’t bother. Instead, they leave ‘meatspace’ behind and log onto Gaia, an all-immersive virtual utopia in which those who can afford the necessary tech choose to work, eat, and consume.
When we meet her on the cusp of a new year, Tao-Yi Ling is already unconvinced by the veneer of Gaia. While her friends revel at their annual New Year’s Eve beach party, Tao-Yi notes the way the sky ‘pixelates at the horizon’ and waits for a breeze that won’t come because ‘the air in Gaia is as stale as a subway tunnel’. In a discomfiting inversion of being distracted from the physical present by the pull of our screens, Tao-Yi is tethered to the ‘crumbling world’ by a persistent longing for its stench and its imperfections, and is never able to fully inhabit Gaia.
There is a feeling I get reading works of science fiction that unsettle and threaten to expand my very limited concept of reality. Not quite fear, not exactly vertigo. Confronted with barely habitable futures or the infinity of outer space, an insidious unease leaks into my nights. Chan calibrates this discomfort through carefully written sensations, or lack thereof. In Gaia, food ‘fills your mouth rapidly with pleasure, like a piece of chocolate’; Tao-Yi leans into her partner Navin’s neck for comfort, ‘but only smells a generic, cottony scent—something fabricated. Programmed.’ Chan’s attentive writing deftly traps me in the web of Tao-Yi’s growing disquiet, but it is only when the suggestively named Neuronetica-Somners develops the technology to permanently ‘upload’ human consciousnesses to Gaia that the weird machine really kicks in and the novel begins to peak.
Caught between a partner whose chronic illness has him leaping at the opportunity to ditch his body with all its unruly needs and failings, and an ageing mother who has no interest in the simulated luxuries of Gaia, Tao-Yi finds herself unable to commit to either reality. Chan is rigorous in her refusal to take the obvious route. Every Version of You is science fiction in its premise, but literary in its attention to the facets of a life that spawn Tao-Yi’s inner-conflict—the physicality of the solace she draws from Navin, her outsider-status as a Chinese Malaysian immigrant, and the complexity of her relationship with a mother who suffers from depression.
I want to tell you more about Tao-Yi, but the trick of Gaia—as with all virtual spaces—is that it leaves its users so far removed from themselves, so disembodied, as to make them inscrutable, even and often to themselves. This dissociative quality lends the book a certain looseness, a sense of infinite possibility that sedates the urge to prognosticate. This slipperiness is, for me, the most exciting aspect of the novel: I have no idea what’s going to happen next; it’s enough to lean into the turns.
Running counter to this openness, the disturbing familiarity of Gaia as a vision of technocapitalism taken to its furthest and most logical extreme gives each step-up in the plot an aura of inevitability. The parallels to our world are unmistakable: the accumulation and consumption of content, algorithm-driven cultures, the horror of the abandoned body, yet Chan’s novel is not the usual denouncement of social media. It is, like its protagonist, nuanced in its efforts to understand the desire to escape and the desire to stay, and to imagine other ways of existing. Unlike the cramped meatspace apartments of its inhabitants, Every Version of You is generous in its propositions; if not hopeful for humankind, it speaks of the indeterminate value of the human soul.