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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Continuous
Katherine Mortenhoe


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe

Title: The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe
Author: D.G.Compton
Genre: Novel
Written: 1974
Length: 257 pages
Availability: The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe - US
The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe - UK
The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe - Canada
La mort en direct - France
Der gekaufte Tod - Deutschland
L'occhio insonne - Italia
La continua Katherine Mortenhoe - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: New York Review Books
  • The original US edition was titled: The Unsleeping Eye
  • With an Introduction by Jeff VanderMeer
  • The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe was made into the 1980 film Death Watch (La mort en direct), directed by Bertrand Tavernier and starring Romy Schneider, Harvey Keitel, and Harry Dean Stanton

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Our Assessment:

A- : very well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Sunday Times . 4/8/1974 Edmund Cooper

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mr Compton's logic is a little weak at times; but he is strong on character, mood, credibility." - Edmund Cooper, Sunday Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe opens with Jack Patterson, known as Roddie, narrating. He is a TV reporter, beginning his new assignment -- one unlike any other he has previously had. Just a short time earlier he had applied and was selected to be the first to put to the test a revolutionary new innovation -- "the most staggering tool for truthful reportage the world had ever known". A new technology was basically implanted into his eyes, cameras that captured and transmitted everything he saw; Roddie had been transformed into a human camera, offering a continuous live feed. He understands it's "a surgical monstrosity", and that it means he could never again have privacy, having turned himself completely into a "public man", but the money is good -- "a three year contract that would keep me in luxury the rest of my life" -- and the professional possibilities tantalizing:

     Mostly it felt marvelous. I was, after all, a reporter. I had suffered under the exigencies of camera and lighting crews all my professional life. The presence of a watching camera takes people in different ways -- some reporters are good and some are bad; the best are careful and the worst are carefully uncareful. Scientists claim that the very act of observation alters in some subtle way the nature of the phenomenon being observed. When the phenomenon is people and the observer is the grasping lens of a camera the ways aren't all that subtle. To be free of all that was marvelous.
       Roddie's employer is Vincent Ferriman, Program Controller at broadcaster NTV, and the show that Roddie has been hired for is their popular 'Human Destiny' program. The particular human destiny now to be featured is that of one Katherine Mortenhoe, a forty-four-year-old woman who, when the story opens, is about to receive the devastating news that, despite now living in a time and world where: "practically nobody died of anything except senescence", she is terminally ill and only has four weeks to live.
       Her illness makes hers exactly the kind of story that is ideal for 'Human Destiny', and 'I am Camera'-Roddy is the perfect person to chronicle -- up close and personally -- her final weeks. Of course, they have to get her on board with the idea too, but they're convinced that they can swing that; the enormous amount of money they have at their disposal certainly can help.
       The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe is set in a vaguely futuristic world that differs only in a few basics from the familiar one. Roddie's vision-technology is among the few really novel advances (while amusingly pay-phones are still easy to find); among the few other major differences are in some of the social contracts. Marriage is set up for five years at a time, with partners then having the option to renew their contracts -- with Katherine Mortenhoe's second marriage, to Harry, being up for renewal soon, while Roddie and his former wife, Tracey, have been apart for several years now. (Among the other differences: one can apply for a Private Grief order, which is widely respected, even by the press, and keeps the hounds at bay for its three-day-duration.)
       The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe switches back and forth between Roddie's narration and that of an omniscient narrator whose focus is largely on Katherine. With Roddie and Katherine soon sharing most of their experiences (but others, including Vincent and the decadent Coryton Ansford Rondavel, seeking to impose their own will over Roddie and Katherine's actions), it soon comes down mostly to a switching of perspective -- reminding readers yet again of who is observing (and interpreting) events, with the unseen author obviously also figuring into it all, making the novel also, among much else, an exercise in narrative control, as both Roddy and Katherine try to exert and/or maintain control over her and their stories (and struggle mightily in doing so).
       One of the consequences of the procedure that Roddie underwent is that his eyes must continuously be exposed to light. If he spends time in complete darkness, or closes his eyes to sleep, he'll wind up blind. (A state of unconsciousness is okay, though.) There is medication that keeps him awake, and in his own narration this being 'on', twenty-four hours a day -- the 'unsleeping eye' of the original title for the American edition --, doesn't even sound that problematic; in the third-person sections it comes across as effectively unsettling, however, as Katherine always finds Roddie awake. He might not be (too obviously) watching her, but he's always there, on.
       Katherine works for a modern publishing company -- Computabook, which basically spews out computer-written books guided only lightly by outside editorial hand (Katherine's area). (They do present themselves to the public as Peregrine Publications: "In promotional circles computers were a dirty word".) Katherine's job, of dealing with endless variations of very basic stories, with precisely defined parameters, neatly fits in this story in which she must (quickly) figure out what to do with her (remaining) life -- her own story now no longer one that can be presented in the traditional human-life-story template. With: "four weeks into which to pack the next fifty years of living" Katherine is very starkly faced with such issues as what is and makes a meaningful life. A would-be novelist herself, she's never gotten far with her own writing, either .....
       Katherine immediately gets an official offer from NTV, but doesn't want anything to do with them (though the money is tempting, especially to and for her husband). She quickly has to decide how to go on: what should she do. (Her instincts are such that she has a hard time even just abandoning her work at first.) Eventually, she decides to do a runner, escaping everything about her life. The long arms and eyes of NTV mean that she can't elude them easily, and Roddie quickly insinuates himself in her (new) life -- planning to tell her who he really is soon enough, but putting it off time and again. It's all captured on film, of course, via his eyes -- and soon it's being transmitted -- the ultimate reality TV show (if heavily edited for public consumption: like the Computabook products, the story is still shaped by humans for public consumption).
       Katherine and Roddie wind up, more or less, on the run, but society -- and the long reach of NTV -- are hard to escape, especially when Roddie is playing both sides, as it were -- trying to gain Katherine's confidence while also doing his job.
       There are a variety of complications, too. One is the nature of Katherine's illness -- and even whether it is, in fact, terminal. There are also the relationships of the main characters: Katherine and the unassuming Harry have a solid marriage -- but it is up for renewal. There's also the lingering question of why Katherine has kept the Mortenhoe-name of her first husband. And there's her unhappy relationship with her father. Meanwhile, Roddie can't help but look up his former wife Tracey again; there's a son, too -- named Roddie Two, no less .....
       The way the novel presages contemporary reality-TV is striking, and Compton captures celebrity culture as a whole very well, with Katherine quickly finding it almost impossible to hide her identity, even before NTV have begun streaming her. But The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe is quite exceptional even beyond that. Compton does a very fine job of presenting and exploring these two characters in their extreme situations -- as Roddie's always-public condition turns out to be hardly less extreme than Katherine's terminal one. Some of the secondary characters are a bit simply and broadly drawn, but Katherine and Roddie and what amounts to their odyssey are expertly captured and presented.
       Unsurprisingly, given also the title, the theme of continuity is prominent and significant -- and very well handled. It is already introduced on the very first page, where Roddie explains: "I have had this thing about continuity, you see, since my long ago realization that people were true only when they were continuous". Suddenly finding his own life, continuous, without even the breaks of sleep and dream, his heightened awareness of and full immersion in continuity, his own and Katherine's, turn out to allow for complete truth -- but that also proves hard to take.
       Even what incidents and characters are a bit over the top they are handled well. Compton shows a particularly fine touch in not zooming in too closely on certain things -- the reasons behind the on-going protests that make it difficult to travel on the roads; the exact nature of the actvities Katherine and Roddie find themselves being used for after Coryton Ansford Rondavel picks them up hitchhiking --, making for properly fuzzy backdrops even as he remains crystal clear in his focus on Katherine and Roddie.
       If bits and pieces are a bit dated or awkward, overall -- and especially at its heart -- The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe is a very impressive work that has held up exceptionally well, with Compton displaying excellent control over his material. What science fiction elements there are -- the differences in the technology and in this society from our own -- are kept almost to the minimum just necessary for the story: Compton isn't world-building here; instead, he simply tinkers with the familiar, adding a few small twists that allow him to shine a sharp light back on the reader's own world -- on target, remarkably, for both his original readers as well as those that come to the novel now, fifty years later.
       A very strong piece of work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 March 2022

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The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe: Reviews: Death Watch - the movie: D.G.Compton: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author D.G.Compton (David Guy Compton) was born in 1930.

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© 2022 the complete review

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