I’d previously read four of D. G. Compton’s lesser known works before procuring a copy of his acknowledged masterpiece, The Unsleeping Eye (variant title: The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe) (1973). The Unsleeping Eye far surpasses the remarkable The Steel Crocodile (1970) and Synthajoy (1968). Many of the themes and techniques Compton uses in the other works of his I’ve read are honed to perfection and greatly expanded on: strong intelligent female characters dominate the pages, multiple perspectives add depth to the story, and the theme of surveillance creates an overwhelming sinister sheen. Beautiful. Disturbing. Visceral.
One of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read.
Brief Plot Summary
Katherine Mortenhoe, a forty-four year old married “programmer” of Romance novels, is informed that she has a fatal illness and that she’ll be dead in a few weeks. Because Compton’s future world is blessed with longevity, Katherine’s death at such a young age will be a media sensation.
Rod, narrated from first person perspective, is plagued with remorse and frustration over his wife’s non-renewal of their marriage contract. Rod accepts a controversial (and revolutionary) camera implant in his eye and receives an assignment to film Katherine’s suffering and slow decline to be edited into a reality television show.
Katherine resists the invitation of the TV network until she is hounded continuously by the media. Eventually she agrees to sign with the TV network inorder to receive protection but runs away so that the massive money she receives goes to her intensely devoted husband — to provide him with a life after her death.
Rod meets up with Katherine in a homeless shelter and under the guise of friendship begins to film her suffering. Of course, Rod is deeply conflicted. He “sees” the continuous Katherine Mortenhoe.
Compton is adept at exploring Rod and the world’s view of Katherine through a “lens”, “viewing” through a television screen, through “eyes”, manipulated “eyes”… The scenes with Rod and Katherine are powerful and disturbing — two deeply conflicted characters in an impossible situation.
The prose can be downright beautiful. Rarely does science fiction use forty-four year old women protagonists — it’s extremely refreshing. Katherine is a remarkable character whom we emphasize with completely. Rod, placed in the bizarre situation in filming the television show without her knowledge and caring for her, is equally well-conceived. As always, Compton’s female characters are morally superior to their menfolk.
Compton’s world in which Rod and Katherine suffer at the hands of/wander through/and cometo grips with feels uncannily like ours. Perhaps in our age of reality television, phone tapping, government surveillance, The Unsleeping Eye is more relevant than ever. This is one of the most disturbing works you’ll ever pick up.
Highly highly recommended! D. G. Compton is an underrated writer.
(Is Tavernier’s 1980 film adaptation Death Watch worth watching? I do like a few of Tavernier’s films…)