You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
A Superior Spectre is a portrait of two spirits born in completely different time periods, on different continents, and united not through a moment of synchronicity or a sense of sensitivity but through the leaking of one person’s soul into another. The main characters are Jeff and Leonora. Jeff, a product of a not-so-distant future, has dedicated his life to hedonism, just as Leonora, a product of the 1800s and duped by the constraints of her time, has dedicated herself to education. These two lives have nothing to do with each other until Jeff embeds himself into the past using an experimental technology called DNE, or digitised neural experience. Barely trialled, it comes with the very clear warning that it only be used three times. Jeff wants to escape the illness attacking his body and so uses the drug to enter into that of a 19th century woman living in Edinburgh. Leonora then lives through Jeff’s spirit invading her body, while he enacts himself through her.
This merging is not a harmonious one, and the unfurling and coalescence of Leonora and Jeff’s minds is slow. Meyer employs certain stylistic techniques that work to ease the reader into this combination of minds. At first, Leonora’s sections are written in the third person. The language is demure, considered, and stiff: “Leonora respected the quiet, the guests’ low murmur and the clink of cutlery.” Yet whereas Leonora’s voice is built to be passive, rendered to serve first and think later, Jeff’s first person voice gripes on the page, laced with harshness, cynicism, and aching self-awareness: “I went to bed early and had to have a little giggle at myself, for being so typically human…The dying man reflecting. I’m sickened at the typicality.”
Over the course of the novel, the two minds intersperse inside this one female body, both Leonora and Jeff beginning to think in the first person. Chapter breaks reveal who is who, the scenes alternating between futuristic Australia and 19th-century Scotland, but even these chapters begin to hop around in narration, time period, and location. There is a tension set up as to who is really thinking for whom. Meyer uses small variations in narration to provide hints to the tuned-in reader, allowing for the shift between minds to be relatively effortless. One particular instance is when Jeff (who is inside Leonora’s body) touches himself. As he – and by extension, she – orgasms, the chapter ends, and the following chapter relates Jeff’s thoughts: “I woke up in pain and arousal, on the verge of orgasm but experiencing such intense cramping in my left calf that I yelped.”
The calf pain serves to remind the reader that Jeff’s health is spasmodic and on the decline, but the reference to cramping also couples the idea of female orgasm with certain aches of a distinctly female type. Even when Jeff returns to his own body in the present, he experiences sensations unique to the female body parts, in places that are anatomically male.,
For Leonora, visions of life from Jeff’s time period loom in her imagination, giving her the sense that she is hallucinating. She constantly lives in moments that are not in fact occurring in front of her eyes. It is at this that Meyer excels, writing 21st century normalcies into a 19th century frame of mind: “Waking is coming to the edge of a moor in the fog, seeing ghostly dots of candlelight and heading towards them, seeing brighter lights further in the distance, unnatural. Taller buildings than in Edinburgh. Moving machines that make the noise of thunderclaps.”
The use of the word thunderclap brings both sound and image to the description. The reader imagines dreary, storm-like automatons wandering through the fog. Much like Leonora, we are unable to picture what these machines could be, but the haziness is purposeful, losing the reader in the delirium that is festering in Leonora’s mind.
An avid reader will find echoes of Meyer’s blend of literary writing, social reflection, and genre subversions in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. Yet what sets Meyer’s novel apart from these contemporary classics is how A Superior Spectre represents the repercussions of its premise. Rather than using speculative fiction as a space to comment on sexism and female subjugation, Meyer exploits the immediacy of first-person narration to thrust her reader into a purposefully appropriative role. One has to follow Jeff as he takes advantage of Leonora’s young and able body for sexual fulfilment or as he perverts her thoughts with ideas of gender fluidity and Vegemite. The reader is never allowed critical distance from his decisions. What’s more, the merging of Jeff’s narcissism with Meyer’s awareness of her own literary style result in wondrous metafictional observations. “I don’t, for example, know how to represent her accent…And I’m sure there will still be instances when I can’t remember or find the right words to capture the thought or emotion I experience through her. I am tainted by my own time, my own context. We always experience other people’s stories this way, though, don’t we?”
A Superior Spectre cannot be described as merely a political statement or a brilliant premise remarkably actualized. It does not, like so much standard science fiction, simply describe the lunacies of its world. In merging the vantage points of sci-fi and historical fiction, the male mentality with the female, the crags of Scotland with the plains of Australia, Meyer has created a novel of convergence and repercussion, fusion, and dissociation, that never gives the reader – not even once – the option of averting her eyes.
A Superior Spectre
By Angela Meyer
288 pages, Ventura Press