The Seep – by Chana Porter

A more-or-less utopian setting and a butch trans woman as a main characters are, from my point of view, decent incentives to read a book; some words of praise from no less than Jeff VanderMeer don’t hurt either. But – what’s The Seep really about?

Title: The Seep

Author: Chana Porter

Publication Date: 21 January 2020

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 203

Standalone or Series: Standalone

Representation: Biracial transgender main character in a same-sex marriage – Queer secondary characters – Queernorm setting

Content Warning: Grief – Death – Suicide – Alcoholism

Synopsis

Trina Goldberg-Oneka is a trans woman whose life is irreversibly altered in the wake of a gentle—but nonetheless world-changing—invasion by an alien entity calling itself The Seep. Through The Seep, everything is connected. Capitalism falls, hierarchies and barriers are broken down; if something can be imagined, it is possible.

Trina and her wife, Deeba, live blissfully under The Seep’s utopian influence—until Deeba begins to imagine what it might be like to be reborn as a baby, which will give her the chance at an even better life. Using Seep-tech to make this dream a reality, Deeba moves on to a new existence, leaving Trina devastated.

Heartbroken and deep into an alcoholic binge, Trina chases after a young boy she encounters, embarking on an unexpected quest. In her attempt to save him from The Seep, she will confront not only one of its most avid devotees, but the terrifying void that Deeba has left behind.

Analysis

Form & Style: The Seep is a relatively short book, written mostly in third person, except for the two short sections in second person, respectively at the very beginning and at the very end of the story, that come with some nominal advice on how to party at the end of the world, or at the beginning of a new one. Other than that, the narrative voice keeps close to Trina’s point of view, even though not necessarily merging with her stream of consciousness. Porter’s style is whimsical and trippy, with a flowery dream-like quality; while I can’t help but be distracted by a few incongruities that are probably more a matter of editing than anything else (Trina’s bare feet sinking into the moss-covered floor, while at the same time she’s described as wearing her old leather boots, really), I must admit the writing is overall quite pretty, and most importantly well suited to the subject matter. Dialogues may not always feel that natural, but honestly it might be ascribed to almost everyone being high on the Seep most of the time.

Setting: In a future that looks very much like our present days, a benevolent but utterly alien entity reaches Earth and miraculously puts an end to most human struggles: poverty and war are erased, even death is all but defeated, and a widespread sense of empathy make everyone kinder to each other; not only that, but wilder dreams and fantasies may now become reality: people are able not just to heal and rejuvenate their bodies, but also to turn into mythical creatures to their heart’s content – and, of course, you get the chance to literally start your life over by turning back into a newborn, if that sounds appealing to you.

The Seep occupies quite a unique spot among fictional alien creatures: on the one end, it’s definitely not humanoid, having no sense of linear time and having motives that can only be loosely translated in human terms. On the other hand, its nature is not the main focus of the story, or even the object of a secondary inquiry. Instead, it works mostly as a plot device to build a mostly idyllic setting, as a backdrop for our main character’s inner journey.

Characters: With her gruff demeanour and conflicting views, Trina is by far the strongest element of The Seep; in a refreshing change of pace from, well, most popular fiction, our main character is a grumpy, unfashionable middle-aged woman, nominally open minded but actually quite set in her ways; despite her other sources of misery, she appears to be at ease with her identity as a trans woman, and feels no need to adhere to feminine stereotypes that don’t match her personality (which doubles as a not so subtle reminded that gender identity and gender presentation are two different matters – now say it louder for the people in the back).

The characters all around her, on the other hand, are not all that distinctive, and despite having each of them their quirks, they ultimately come across as a gaggle of mutually replaceable hipstery types (which is remarkable if you think one of them is a literal bear). Her supposed nemesis isn’t all that fleshed out, either – yes, he’s performing something akin to blackface, and he’s so obsessed with the Seep that he wants to initiate an innocent boy who may or may not be able to consent – but a couple of hallmarks of being Bad and Problematic does not a full personality make.

Plot: The Seep is, ultimately, the story of how the main character learnt to process her grief. The book hints to a more traditional plot when Trina claims to be embarking on a quest, however what really happens is that we see her drift from casual encounter to casual encounter, struggling with her emotions – both because of the loss of her wife, and because of her mixed feelings towards a world that, for all its wonders, is too different to what she was accustomed to. If something ever happens in The Seep, it’s mainly there as an inspiration or counterpoint to her personal emotions.

Themes & Overall Thoughts: The Seep touches upon many themes, but only a few of them are really explored. As I mentioned, first encounter here serves only as a plot device; now, building your utopia by the means of Space Magick could double as a not-so-optimistic meditation on human nature, if we read it in the sense that we, as humankind, are incapable of bettering ourselves, and can only hope to be rescued by some almighty alien. But ok, I do not really believe it’s where to book wanted to go; instead, I think that alien intervention was just the quickest way to establish a society that’s not just peaceful and prosperous, but that offers endless options of wish fulfilment.

Now, the world of The Seep is not a perfect utopia – but that’s not because someone might object to the fall of capitalism and hierarchies, or (much more reasonably) because relying so much on the influence of an ineffable alien is not all that reassuring once you think about it. No – the problem is that, as humans, we’re able to breed misery no matter our surroundings – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Through the book, Trina flirts with, but fortunately rejects, the idea that pain is necessary to make True Art, and grapples with the conflicting beliefs that our most genuine identities are born out of pain and struggle, even though, of course, poverty and discrimination are nothing anyone should ever miss. Which, to some advocacy movements, subcultures, self-help circles, may even ring truer that’s comfortable admitting: who are we if we’re allowed to thrive? Are we still ‘us’ if we’re not misunderstood? After so much fighting, could we ever adjust to peace? It’s a slightly dysfunctional feeling, born out of a coping mechanism, that could be worth pondering over, hadn’t we got much more pressing concerns.

Besides, there’s the fact that, even if infinite resources are available, perfect happiness ends up being at odd with free will: Deeba is free to pursue a brand new life, untainted by traumatic memories, but in doing so she can’t help but shatter Trina’s dreams. A state of unadulterated bliss may be conceivable to the Seep, who has no notion of time and individuality, but is beyond our reach, because conflict and separation are part of our nature. The book doesn’t offer a clear-cut solution, not even in its fictional world; instead, in showing Trina slowly coming to terms with her bereavement, it hints at the possibility to savour whatever bit of happiness is available, no matter if imperfect and transient.

All that said, I mostly enjoyed this book – I loved Trina as a character, her emotional journey was well-executed, and I don’t really don’t mind some trippy dream sequence now and then. Still, I can’t say I am entirely satisfied, because for all its insightful moments, The Seep still leaves too much of its subject matter unaddressed or underdeveloped, and its social commentary, while interesting on an abstract level, was definitely to niche. Anyway, since The Seep was Chana Porter’s debut, I am not very curious to read her new book.

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