Surrogate Protocol by Tham Cheng-E (2017), Epigram
What if you lived an incredibly long life but couldn't remember most of it?
That's the situation that immortal Landon Lock faces. However unlike Duncan Macleod, the famous immortal protagonist of Highlander, Landon lives an unexciting life and decapitation doesn't seem to be a likely prospect.
He works as a barista in a coffee shop, lives in an old bungalow house and his sole meaningful contact with the outside world is the occasional beer with his gardener.
Faking new identities to disguise his lack of aging, his only links to his past are his home and the journals he occasionally leafs through, rekindling memories that date back to the 1800s.
He's happy to spend his days in this uneventful routine but is thrust into an unseen war between two shadowy entities that have an interest in 'Chronies' such as himself. As Landon realises there are others like himself, the novel cuts between the present and the past, leaving both Landon and the reader work out the relationships between the various Chronies and their alliances with the factions that seem hellbent on using Landon for their own mysterious purposes.
Part modern day thriller and part historical novel, Tham has obviously done a lot of research and puts great effort into describing Singapore across many time periods from the 1800s to the present day. These sections of the book that look at Singapore’s past are often the best parts, painting a picture of old Singapore that goes beyond the dry history texts we’re used to.
Tham strives for authenticity in the dialogue used with some conversations in dialect. However it would be helpful to provide translations where the context of the situation doesn't make the meaning of the dialect phrases obvious.
Sometimes descriptions can verge on the florid, with certain words being overused and some oddities in phrasing. Eyes can only be described as “protuberant” so many times.
Some of the dialogue also has a decidedly B-grade feel. It’s hard to read something like this without conjuring up the image of a moustache twirling villain in an old-time radio drama:
“You will live and suffer for my pleasure, you spineless little squirt!” Marco’s spittle flies into Landon’s face. “You’re the pesky fly that’s been buzzing in my head for the past eighty years and now I’m leashing you up and plucking your little legs off one by one.”
Tham does a good job of working out the details of how an immortal like Landon would keep his secret and does well in making clear the process by which he assumes new identities to hide his lack of aging. The nonlinear storytelling and many twists and turns in the plot keep the reader guessing. Sometimes though it feels like this would be better watched than read. Especially when the action kicks in and he's describing situations like Mexican standoffs or various technological marvels.
I couldn't shake the feeling that Tham wanted to write either a historical novel or a science fiction thriller, but combined both to forge an uneasy alliance. Still, by the time you reach the emotional ending, there’s a sense of events coming full circle.
All in all I found this a commendable and ambitious first effort. For a novel with a similar scope the reader can look to Robert Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love, the story of immortal Lazarus Long. Joe Haldeman’s The Long Habit of Living and Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron also explore similar themes regarding the morality of life extension.
Surrogate Protocol is available online from Local Books and at leading bookstores.