Near the beginning of Plato's Republic, Socrates and Glaucon meet with Cephalus, an aged and respectable Athenian who treats them to a discourse on the nature of old men. The ardors of their youth having fled, and family now visiting them mostly with slights, the old are complainers, Cephalus muses, but age is not the true culprit. In his previous brilliant and controversial novels "Platform" and "The Elementary Particles," the French author Michel Houellebecq has driven wisdom as far in the opposite direction of Cephalus as it can go. Near the end of his by turns bewitching and tiresome new novel, "The Possibility of an Island," Houellebecq's narrator — a middle-aged comedian turned film producer named Daniel — makes the ultimate confession. It "was in truth the sole pleasure, the sole objective of human existence, and all other pleasures — whether associated with rich food, tobacco, alcohol or drugs — were only derisory and desperate compensations, mini-suicides that did not have the courage to speak their name, attempts to speed up the destruction of a body that no longer had access to the one real pleasure.
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Although a more pressing concern over the last two decades, the concept of cloning has intrigued storytellers for thousands of years. It is obvious why: the possibility of doubles resolves all kinds of narrative problems. Euripides, in his play Helen, suggests that his protagonist had a double made from air, redeeming her from responsibility for the Trojan War.
Michel Houellebecq, whom many consider the most significant French novelist today, uses cloning to address a perennial problem of science fiction and The Possibility of an Island is, at least in part, a science fiction novel : how to interest the reader in an imagined future far removed from our era. He resolves this by making one of his protagonists Daniel24 the 24th replication of a character who lives in a very recognisable present day. In doing so, he addresses the biggest crises of our age.
No longer believing in religion, denied the comforting fantasy of an eternal afterlife, what possible ambition could we have besides remaining young and living as long as possible? Having children offers no satisfaction: Daniel1 believes babies are so disgusting that he attempts to make a film, the first 15 minutes of which consist of "the unremitting explosion of babies' skulls under the impact of shots from a high-calibre revolver". Sex offers only temporary consolation, and the only real affection a human can receive is from a dog - which Houellebecq, in a rare flash of sentimentality, calls a "loving-machine".
As the author guides us towards the possibility of a neo-human world, being cloned seems as good as it's going to get. Before giving up on the human race, Houellebecq's depressed year-old does manage to fall in love. Much of the middle of this novel is taken up by a description of Daniel1's relationship with Esther, a year-old actress.
She is described in the same reductive prose that Houellebecq uses for descriptions of female characters in all his novels, lovable for not wearing knickers and possessing what Daniel describes as the greatest skill a woman can have: knowing when to put your hand on a man's penis in public. Daniel1 knows this relationship is pathetic, and it's not long before she leaves him.
Still, his fate is far better than that of poor old Daniel24, who lives in a time when neo-humans are denied all physical contact and spends his days showing Marie22 his penis via the video mechanism in his computer. She responds by sending him jerky images of her vagina. Daniel24 is even more disillusioned than his original, describing said image as "a hole for dwarves, fallen into disrepair.
When not lusting after Esther, Daniel1 spends his time as the only sizeable celebrity interested in a religious sect who worship the Elohim, "extraterrestrial creatures responsible for the creation of mankind, and due one day to return". As this sect is based in Lanzarote, it seems reasonable to assume they are another version of the Azraelians, who appeared in Houllebecq's Lanzarote one of countless references to the author's previous work.
They are a fictional version of the real-life Raelians, famous for their human-cloning claims, who have spoken of their admiration for Houellebecq and their approval of this novel. But the pleasures offered by the Elohimites are not enough to distract Daniel1 from either the human condition or his doomed love affair, and it is not long before he commits suicide. Before he does so, he pens a letter to Esther that gives the novel its title and will have a devastating effect on at least three of the clones after he is dead.
After Daniel24 dies, he is replaced by a more adventurous clone, who sets out into the wilderness. Here Houellebecq seems to lose his way. The first pages of this novel prove that Houellebecq is one of the best novelists writing today. His contemporary references suggest an author at ease with all aspects of modern culture: arguments about whether Larry Clark is as good a filmmaker as Michael Haneke; his description of Steve Jobs as the first to join the cloning cult, followed by Bill Gates and Richard Branson; his narrator's name-checking of Coetzee's Disgrace as a novel that sums up his situation.
But although world events make this a good time for apocalyptic fiction, the final commentary and epilogue are the novel's weakest sections. I have no problem with science fiction as a genre, but Houellebecq's descriptions of the debris of ancient human activity "flat screen televisions, piles of shattered CDs, an immense point-of-sale advertisement depicting the singer David Bisbal" are the product of a much more predictable imagination than evident elsewhere in the novel.
It's unsurprising that a misanthropic talent with a love of science fiction would want to realise his vision of the end of the world, but Houellebecq is undoubtedly at his best when he uses his forensic skills to dissect our present age. You can find our Community Guidelines in full here. Want to discuss real-world problems, be involved in the most engaging discussions and hear from the journalists?
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The Book of Daniels
His numerous flaws, his near-pathological obsession with the same themes, his acidic nihilism — all have been dwelt upon in the many negative review he receives. As is often the case, the pejorative reviews, as much as the positive ones, are what have made Houellebecq into the phenomenon he is. They typically alight on his devotionally pornographic rendering of sex scenes, his colourless, nearly banal prose and his utterly artificial conceits. This is all fairly true.
The Possibility of An Island by Michel Houellebecq
In neither role does he ask for, nor does he receive, much sympathy. In the new novel, a lengthy exercise in futuristic science fiction, the hero, named Daniel, involves himself in the founding stages of a worldwide cult, Elohimism, that delivers its adherents into practical immortality, achieved through replacement of the deceased individual by a DNA-derived duplicate possessed of not only the same bodily traits but the same memories. The original Daniel—Daniel1—lives more or less in the present era, in Paris and Andalusia, and his latest edition, Daniel25, lives two millennia hence, in a depopulated Spain. They and the intervening Daniels have become, thanks to the ingenious founders of Elohimism, what the novel calls neohumans, who reside in electrically fenced isolation, keeping in rather slack electronic touch with one another and waiting, with an indifference compounded of Buddhist detachment and genetic modification, to die and be replaced by eighteen-year-old clones. Sound inviting? Want to go there? The reader has no trouble believing that Daniel1, over forty and physically no prize, sorely grieves when his pet slut Esther in her heedless youth tires of him; it is another thing for the reader to grieve along with him.
Clones Behaving Badly
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Daniel is a successful comedian who can't seem to enjoy life despite his wealth. He gets bored with his hedonist lifestyle, but can't escape from it either. In the meanwhile he is disgruntled with the state of current society, and philosophizes about the nature of sex and love. His two clones live an uneventful life as hermits, in a post-apocalyptic future.