Dundurn Press: David Whitton, Victoria Hetherington, and K.S. Covert

The first two of these books are published by Rare Machines, an imprint of Dundurn Press. All three feature provocative ideas such as an invisible “spy” organization, artificial intelligence, and institutions where the touch-starved can go to touch and be touched. The characters in these books–despite the books being so wildly different from each other–are looking for the same thing: a better life, somewhere to belong.

Seven Down by David Whitton

Humans are little whirlwinds of chaos. We who have transcended humanity can laugh at them all we want, but we depend upon their labours and must respect their fearful power.

Seven Down is like a literary spy novel, except you don’t know who the spies are working for and the spies don’t know what’s going on.

The King William Hotel in Toronto, Ontario is the workplace of seven planted spies, working in the seven departments of the hotel: Reservations, Engineering, Catering, Courtesy, Security, Management, and Systems. Each of these–seemingly–ordinary employees, without knowledge of each other, are going about their lives, day after day, year after year, waiting for the codeword that will let them know that today is the day.

When the day finally comes, they have their instructions and carry out their duties. But something goes very wrong. The novel is made up of the debriefing of each employee by an agent from “The Company”, in the attempt to establish what went wrong. Not only does the reader learn about the “operation” as each debriefing gets read, but also revealed are the inner workings of each of the employees and what led them to “sign up” for this mysterious role, knowing that it would change their lives forever.

I tiptoed down stairs, pinned a note to the fridge to pick up dishwasher detergent, then out to the car and into the traffic surge, the endless commute, all the drivers dreaming, humans encased in our machines, wishing we could be freed of all this bullshit.

Autonomy by Victoria Hetherington

A bit slow to get into, but once Slaton “meets” Julian, things get interesting.

Julian is a “synthetic consciousness” trained to work with people at the border of the “American Protectorate of Canada.” It’s 2035, just far/close enough into the future to make you squirm. Society seems to be going backward again – abortions are illegal and people have to write notes to each other to avoid being heard by the devices that surround them.

After a week of detaining and interviewing Slaton at the border for being accused of helping one of her students get an abortion, Julian decides to branch off and go with Slaton when she leaves. Because Julian has the ability to know things that are going on elsewhere, he is able to help Slaton through the loss of her job and her subsequent poverty. (But can you trust a synthetic consciousness?) Not long after Slaton is back on her feet, living in a gated-in community north of Toronto, The Illness comes to Canada. The gated community believes they are invincible and continue to live lavishly. But now they are in danger just like everyone else, and not only from The Illness.

Not only is the ending left open for interpretation, but the entire novel’s messages are philosophical in nature; exploring what it means to love and to be human “in a world in which human bodies are either threatened or irrelevant.” In addition, Hetherington explores queer relationships and other social justice issues, as well as the ethics of tech surveillance.

I watch humans imitate what they see in texts, and these texts often imitate other texts. These imitations nestle within one another, and the deeper they go, the more I wonder about human autonomy.

Hetherington’s first novel–Mooncalves–was a finalist for the 2020 Amazon First Novel Award and I gave into the temptation to read it. Mooncalves (Now or Never Publishing) is a strange tale of cults, sexual obsession, and the consequences of it on a girl in the near future.

From what I know of her, she has never resisted anybody, making their desires her own. And even when they were apart her entire life encircled his, anchoring and sharpening his rage, his faith–his want.

Both books tell disturbing speculative stories, beautifully written.

The Petting Zoos by K.S. Covert

Imagine living in a world where “chocolate is like unicorns–you hear about it, but you never see it.” Scary, right? It gets worse.

I was intrigued by the premise of this book from the beginning. A virus has swept over the world (I believe the author conceptualized this book long before the corona virus came along), and has left it with a population akin to what it was before the industrial revolution, leaving many people alone and isolated over the past ten years. To make matters worse, the government has enforced strict rules to help keep people safe from the virus, such as low gathering limits as well as the requirement to wear masks and gloves outside of their homes at all times.

As you can imagine, ten years of this can leave a person afraid to join the world again, despite their desperation to do so. But when people are ordered to return to work, Lily begins her slow transition back into the world. People living alone are also ordered to attend therapeutic massage sessions at least once a week. For Lily, this was her gateway drug into the petting zoos.

The petting zoos? They are all different, but, in effect, they are illegal establishments that have sprung up in response to the “skin hunger” individuals are suffering from. In most zoos, you’ll find “faunas”–attendees who have signed up to be touched–and “tactiles”–attendees who have signed up to do the touching. As you make your way through the levels of the zoos, the touching moves from neutral to sexual, depending on what you’re looking for.

Through work, Lily gets the opportunity to meet the owner of some of the higher-end petting zoos, as well as be taken on a tour. She decides to sign up for the entry level zoo and she doesn’t look back. After all this time, she’s struck by the “wonder” of a “face in motion, in the act of speaking.” And that’s just the beginning.

The idea of the petting zoos–and, more to the point, how they work–might seem ‘odd’ (for lack of a better word), but I can see how ‘odd’ things can come of extreme circumstances. And, knowing what we’ve learned from our relatively short lockdown experiences and mild masking mandates, it’s interesting to imagine how things might escalate after ten years of the same. There are also political implications of such a catastrophe being played out in the book… “I think the regency is holding onto the mask and glove laws for reasons that have nothing to do with hygiene and everything to do with control.” As our own world has discovered, there is a blurry line between such things – how far do we go to keep a population safe, and where do we draw the line?

Do you enjoy reading books with big ideas? Do any of these tempt you?

10 thoughts on “Dundurn Press: David Whitton, Victoria Hetherington, and K.S. Covert

      • Karissa says:

        That would make a lot of sense, especially after the isolation of covid. Having young children and having friends who also have little children, I find that I’m far more aware of the opposite phenomenon of being “touched out”!

    • Naomi says:

      Out of the three, it’s also the most fun. I was trying to figure things out myself the whole way along. And as the interviews advance, we start to see the overlapping perspectives of what went on.

  1. annelogan17 says:

    I read Autonomy and really liked it, and I have Zoos on my shelf currently so I really must get to it. The spy novel seems like a really fun read though, I must ask Dundurn to send that one to me too!

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