Essential Worker, Expendable Worker: On Edward Ashton’s “Mickey7”

ASIDE FROM THE Enterprise itself, there may be no piece of technology more popularly associated with Star Trek than the transporter, that miraculous device that can bring Captain Kirk and company from the ship to the surface of the planet and back in the blink of an eye. Naturally (being miraculous) its precise specifications are vague: over the course of the franchise, we are given to understand that the transporter dematerializes people and reconstitutes them in a new place, somehow storing one’s consciousness in the process — so it is not simply a fax machine that shreds the original (the way the similar contraption in the Christopher Nolan movie The Prestige does). However, despite the series’s official position that the transporter is safe and reliable, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy with the characters who refuse to use one; It seems like the transporter simply has to kill you when you use it, and the many stories where the transporter malfunctions and does kill you, or clone you — or age you, or de-age you, or summon your evil duplicate from a morally inverted mirror universe — only serve as confirmation that there’s just something not quite right here.

Edward Ashton’s Mickey7, published in early 2022 and rapidly announced as the basis for Bong Joon-ho’s “blank check” follow-up to his multiple Academy Award–winner Parasitehas a novel spin on Trek‘s “transporter problem.” In a far future context where human beings are colonizing mostly inhospitable extrasolar planets, with varying degrees of success, spaceship crews deploy a worker called an Expendable to do the jobs that might endanger the other, more important members of the crew. Need someone to fix an engine in a room flooded with lethal radiation? Wake up the Expendable. Need someone to explore an unknown cavern that might be teeming with alien bugs? Get the Expendable. Want to see if humans can safely eat the mushrooms on Planet X? Set a plate for the Expendable. The Expendable does the work that would cost too much in equipment and precautions to do safely — and when the Expendable dies, they are reloaded from their last memory upload in a fresh new body, awaiting the next no-win scenario to die and be reborn in.

The fantasy of “the Expendable” doesn’t mince words the way Star Trek‘s transporter thought experiment does: the disposable dying clone experiences all the horrors and misery of death, and it stays dead afterwards. Someone different, with whatever portion of their memories was uploaded to the mainframe before they died, goes on living as the next (temporary) copy. The novel follows Mickey7, the seventh iteration of an Expendable named Mickey Barnes who is serving on the colony ship Drakkar. As the novel opens, Mickey7, who has not been particularly scrupulous about uploading his memories (and hasn’t done so in several weeks), drops through a crevice during a routine scouting mission; It’s determined that it would be too risky for the other crew members and their expensive equipment to dig him out, so his crewmates leave him to die of exposure. But Mickey7 unexpectedly survives, and when he gets back to his quarters, he finds that the crew has already decanted Mickey8. Now there are two of him — a situation the non-Expendable members of the crew will inevitably find so disconcerting and uncomfortable that they’ll immediately dump one (or both) in the bio-cycler when they discover their mistake.

One can see immediately why Bong might see Ashton’s story as a potential successor to his sourly anticapitalist Parasite. Mickey7 is a novel about the gig economy in space, starring a main character who cannot find any other way to escape his crushing debts but to sign on as an “essential worker” for a system that doesn’t even recognize him as a person, much less value his safety. His contract with the company is fully one-sided; he lives entirely on their beneficence, they owe him nothing, and they aren’t shy about saying so. As the novel progresses, with Mickey7 working to “solve,” in this sense, his own previous murders by the captain and crew of the Drakkarthe character must therefore also struggle to come to terms with the fact that work will never love him back — a theme that puts Mickey7 in conversation with a host of earlier anticorporate and anticapitalist science fictions, such as the Alien quadrilogy (1979–97), The Matrix and its sequels (1999–2021), Moon (2009), Black Mirror (2011– ), Severance (2022), and Bong’s own Snowpiercer (2013).

Additionally, the tension between Mickey7 and Mickey8, clones of the same original person coming to very different conclusions about their place in the company and in the world, registers a contemporary preoccupation with the nature of identity across the wide range of contemporary science fiction, most notably in the present moment in the “multiverse” storylines of the current phase of the blockbuster Marvel Cinematic Universe and indie darling Everything Everywhere All at Oncebut also in shows like Orphan Black, Star Trek: Discovery, Moon Knight, Mr. Robotand The Good Place. Mickey7 and Mickey8 are forced to think about what parts of them, if any, are unique or essential — given that both their bodies and their memories are corporate-owned intellectual property subject to easy replacement, and not even the ship’s internal text-messaging system can tell them apart — as well as figure out which one of the two deserves to go on living when their starvation-level daily calorie ration simply won’t support both for very long.

The element of Mickey7 I found most interesting, though, only rises to the surface in the second half, as Mickey7 begins to research the uncomfortable elements of the story’s setting that have been hiding in plain sight throughout the novel. Is colonizing outer space a good idea or a bad one? What happens to the expeditions that fail — and how many do, on average? What happened to Earth? And what happens to the indigenous life forms on all these planets when these know-nothing humans show up and declare they live here too? These portions of the novel Mickey7 as a heavily reveal propagandized subject, someone who knows almost nothing about the true history of his culture, even though the information has never been formally suppressed, just hidden away in dusty books and internet links that no one bothers to read. It’s here, I think, where Mickey7 is most original, building on other recent revisionist science fiction like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora (2015) and Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time series (2015– ) to unsettle the hoary genre conventions it lulled the reader into taking for granted in its first half. What we get is a history of the future from the perspective of the people who have already forgotten the details — a very clever narrative trick, and one the deceptively simple beginning of the novel won’t necessarily lead most readers to see coming until it does .

Science fiction is still sometimes much better at remixing old ideas than coming up with truly new ones, and Mickey7 is an example of how generative that remixing can still be: while coloring firmly within the lines of the genre, the book will remind readers of a dozen other stories without feeling stale or hackneyed, and is still able to cut its own path to unique and surprising places when it needs to. It’s a page-turner, and a great beach or airplane read. I’ll be first in line to read its recently announced sequel, Antimatter Blues (releasing in March 2023). Having missed its initial release, I was personally first drawn to the book, so many months after its initial publication, by the unexpected news that Bong decided to adapt it and that Robert Pattinson, Mark Ruffalo, and Steven Yeun had been cast as the leads — and after reading it, I confess that my primary interest remains my curiosity about what Bong will decide to do with such high-concept raw material after a run of comparatively mundane and down-to-earth films.

It makes good sense as a Bong film. The novel is a study in claustrophobia: not just the loneliness of the caves where Mickey7 finds himself trapped, but also the radical fragility of the Drakkar and its crew, with their ever dwindling resources. The larger story-world feels similarly locked in, trapped; This is a hypertechnologized human society that can’t improve and can’t innovate, and doesn’t even seem to understand the purpose in anything it is doing. And the cruel metaphor of the Expendable as a figure for the way our toxic moment of hypercapitalism deforms and abuses its workers could produce in Bong’s hands cinematic moods ranging from slapstick comedy to deeply disturbing dread, to say nothing of the possibility of just careening back and forth between the two the way Parasite did. I suppose that part’s up to Bong. I’m glad I read the book, and I think you should too — but if you’re like me, you may remain most fascinated afterwards by the question of what Bong will decide to do with it as he runs Mickey7 through his own bio-cycler and 3D-prints his own sublimely weird version (and, as far as I’m concerned, the weirder the better).

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Gerry Canavan is an associate professor in the English department at Marquette University, teaching 20th- and 21st-century literature. He is also the author of Octavia E. Butler from the University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series.

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