The Seep by Chana Porter (Soho Books 2020)
Reviewed by Edmondson Cole
In Chana Porter’s debut novel, an alien life form known as the Seep doesn’t conquer the planet in a military sense –instead it infiltrates humankind via their drinking water, achieving the “softest invasion” (9) earth (or the sci-fi genre) has ever seen. The effect of this invasion is not what one might expect. Not mind-control or bodily harm, but instead a oneness with the world, the ability to touch objects and feel their past, present, and future. For those under the influence of the Seep, “it was impossible to feel anything except expansive joy, peace, tenderness, and love.” (11) So begins an unconventional take on a classic sci-fi premise, a novel about grief and identity and those hardships of the human condition that persist even in a world where death is an “opt-in procedure” (44) and humanity has been freed to live outside “the old scarcity paradigm.” (13)
From its opening lines, The Seep is unconventional. Porter writes with a playful tone, placing us briefly in a world recognizable as our own before immediately turning everything upside down. The reader follows Trina FastHorse Goldberg-Oneka, a middle-aged trans woman who finds herself at a crossroads when her partner Deeba decides she wants to use the Seep’s transformational power to become a child again. Left behind, Trina grieves the loss of her wife and struggles to make sense of her place in a world so radically changed.
Porter’s imagined future is refreshingly hopeful. Thanks to the Seep’s influence, acceptance of identity- and gender politics has become so normal it’s almost old-hat. In this world where humans are free to be whom- or whatever they want to be, growing antlers or having hooves is not only accepted but celebrated. This makes Trina—a fairly reluctant Seep user and holdover from the old world — resentful of the new ways. “She’d fought and kicked and clawed to have her insides match her outsides, and now people changed their faces as easily as getting a haircut.”(145)
As Trina struggles to accept the choice her wife made and the grief she feels having lost her most cherished someone, she embarks on a quest to aid a naïve boy recently arrived from the Seep-free Compound. While the opening chapters feel playful and idea-driven, the second half of the novel finds footing in character-driven scenes and a delightfully limitless reality. Trina must prove to the Seep that grief is not an illness to be cured (“It’s my pain!” she says. “Let me have it.” (177)) and confront Horizon Line, a former-friend turned abuser of the Seep’s power. In the end, he is the one to admit “we can’t just choose to erase or ignore the past…our experiences have made us different, and that difference needs to be celebrated and remembered…Identity cannot be stepped into like pants or a pair of socks.” (164)
The Seep rethinks worn-out sci-fi premises and creates a speculative work that weaves both the political and philosophical into a humanistic story about love, loss, and acceptance. The cast of characters is unique and well-developed, the fictive world lovingly rendered. Porter is at her best when she’s at her most imaginative, creating sentient pamphlets and turning wristwatches into metallic birds. From the first page she challenges the reader to follow her in this series of imaginative leaps. Hang on, because the stranger The Seep gets, the more enjoyable it becomes.
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