M. John Harrison’s “The New Rays” (1982) presents the story of a woman with an abidingly strange illness who must follow the treatments of one Dr. Alexandre in her quest to be cured.
She has begun to see new rays of light that add strange colour to what she sees: the rays appear as “the stealthy gold or russet color of a large, reassuring animal” or bestow a “jetty gloss” on the doctor’s black spectacles. Her illness shows her strange colours not unlike those in Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space” in that they are rays of light usually invisible to human perception.
In addition, through this unexplained sickness, which has her weak, throwing up, and dissociating, certain “blue bodies” have been appearing to her. Like a cross between a blow-up doll, a member of Blue Man Group, and one of those blue full-body stretch suit sports fans, only energy-based, these “blue bodies” appear as human doubles. They are soft to the touch and organless. Somehow, the narrator’s ability to perceive them is tied to the new rays. Blue bodies, strange doppelgängers, simply appear and go about their ordinary surroundings, feeling lost as if they have forgotten why they are standing there.
The narrator suffers alienation due to her strange illness and the even more torturous and humiliating process of the doctor’s treatment, which he conducts in a shed. The protagonist is told to drink a bowel cleanser that will coat her insides with a substance that attracts the new rays. At the mercy of the doctor, whom she does not completely trust, she is subject to experimental treatments that dehumanize her by treating her as a test subject.
Since emotionally she feels alienated from herself and her own body, the role the blue bodies play in this story might symbolize her alienated self. Each blue body mimics the physiognomy of a specific person, suggesting they are “doubles,” which John Clute describes as a prominent feature in much horror and gothic fiction. “Horror conveys a constant message that the concept of the orderly self is a farce,” he writes in The Darkening Garden.
Different from their more numerous look-alike doubles in gothic literature, these blue, organless bodies walk the earth alienated from their surroundings. They may represent a fantasy of an orderly body, one without organs and thus one that theoretically cannot become sick. Or they can be seen to represent, in part at least, a Deleuzian concept of a “body without organs,” in other words a body which has a full potential, without stratification into different functional parts—a body that defies the notion of an orderly self divided into discreet mechanisms.
Doctor Alexandre, a representative of Enlightenment science, wishes to experiment and cure patients at the same time. The narrator is treated as both a subject (a patient who can speak for herself and describe her own pain) and as an object (a test subject treated as a means to an end). However, the success of his treatment depends on a model of an orderly human body.
The appearance of the blue bodies exposes the doctor’s Enlightenment model of the body as a farce: bodies contain hidden entities, doubles that can separate and rejoin the human body. (The narrator discovers this possibility when she sees a blue body attempt to join back with the doctor’s assistant.) Science as we know it cannot account for them, and the doctor’s attempt to understand them is eventually acknowledged to be an “appalling violation” of the narrator’s body.
Harrison’s story captures the narrator’s sense of alienation in a psychologically realistic way. Moments of dreaming or aimless movement capture the narrator’s isolation and feeling of not fully being herself. In addition, the story is set during a war, with nervous and lost looking young conscripts moving about the city on trains and barges for the front line. Their fear and feeling of being lost, without control over their destinies, facing an uncertain future and likely impending doom functions as an objective correlative for what the narrator feels.
Her emotions also come through the occasional existential moment, such as when she sleeps on the subway and someone steals her gloves without her noticing, or when she pretends to know where she’s walking when merging with the disembarking soldiers even though she’s aimless.
The horror the young men feel contributes to the oppressive overall atmosphere, and their almost trancelike movement to the wasteland of the battlefield mirrors the narrator’s self-destructive desire to seek a cure through Doctor Alexandre. In the end, she achieves the self-realization that she has “been complicit in some appalling violation” of herself.
The doctor comments, “Matter is cheap in the universe. It is disorganized, but yearns to be of use. Do you see? We do nothing wrong when we create these blue bodies. We violate no laws.” However, in his yearning for order, he is blind to what the narrator perceives as a violation. It is hinted that he not only wishes to learn more about the new rays but to find some way of exploiting them.
In short, the doctor, from whom the narrator manages to escape, represents the very Enlightenment imperialism of harmony which Doubles, according to Clute, seek to unmask.
Next week I will be reading “The Discovery of Telenapota” by Premendra Mitra (1984).