Bodies as Commodities: A Review of Matt Hill’s Graft

Graft (2016)
Written by: Matt Hill
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 448 pages (Kindle)
Publisher: Angry Robot

Why I Chose It: At Speculative Chic, we decided to review all of the Philip K. Dick Award nominees, and as Editor-in-Chic, it was my responsibility to coordinate that. One by one, books were selected, until one was left, alone, without a home: Graft. When March finally rolled around and no one claimed it, I thought, “You know, this sounds like the most science-fiction-y book of the bunch, so I might as well read it.” I know, ringing endorsement, right? But I’ve got a history with PKD nominees and some favorites among them, so I knew I’d be able to compare Graft with those past nominees if nothing else. My own history of reading lots of science fiction during grad school while writing my own science fiction novel made me feel like I’d be just fine. Also, the cover is freaking awesome.

Premise:

Manchester, 2025. Local mechanic Sol steals old vehicles to meet the demand for spares. But when Sol’s partner impulsively jacks a luxury model, Sol finds himself caught up in a nightmarish trans-dimensional human trafficking conspiracy.

Hidden in the stolen car is a voiceless, three-armed woman called Y. She’s had her memory removed and undertaken a harrowing journey into a world she only vaguely recognises. And someone waiting in the UK expects her delivery at all costs.

Now Sol and Y are on the run from both Y’s traffickers and the organisation’s faithful products. With the help of a dangerous triggerman and Sol’s ex, they must uncover the true, terrifying extent of the trafficking operation, or it’s all over.

Not that there was much hope to start with.

A novel about the horror of exploitation and the weight of love, Graft imagines a country in which too many people are only worth what’s on their price tag.

Yes, there will be spoilers.


Discussion: Full disclosure: this book took me a month to read. No, I didn’t cheat and read something else on the side. However, I will acknowledge that real life got in the way: a cold that lasted a week, lingered as a cough before turning into the flu, and then I was also dealing with an ailing and ultimately dying cat. I say that not to gain sympathy. I say that so that you know that I understand, first and foremost, that my mindset was not the most ideal to be reading a book for review purposes, but hey, life happens.

Yet the premise of this book sounds far, far more interesting and fast-paced than what this book actually delivers. Don’t get me wrong: what happens above does happen, but it’s like listening to the sloth at the DMV in Zootopia: you are waiting…. and waiting…. and waiting….. for those connections to be made.

So let me be fair first:

Hill’s writing is very evocative and engaging in its own right. He takes his time in really showing us our primary characters (Y and Sol) and secondary characters (Roy and Mel), getting inside their heads, and showing us their lives, both past and present. His descriptions of the futuristic Manchester, dystopic they may be, are embellished in a way that only a local who loves and knows his city can write. Manchester feels like its own character in this book, and while I’m not a reader who engages in that (frankly, as a writer I could learn a lot from it), I certainly admire the ability and talent.

Hill also uses one of my favorite novel structures: the braided plot. While a messy here because of the multiple points of view (POVs) in the present (and those multiple POVs have flashbacks to their own past, which makes this messier), the best and cleanest example of a braided plot I can give is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: the entire story is told from the single point of view, but the chapters alternate between past and present, and by the end of the book, the last “past” chapter leads into the first “present” chapter, and it’s just really, really cool and effective if you can pull it off. Here, Hill doesn’t alternate chapters so much as provides interludes from Y’s point of view. And if you’re like me and don’t really pay attention to back cover copy, then you don’t know you’re not reading the past until Sol finally finds the woman in the trunk of the Lexus. And in my case, I wasn’t really sure it was Y until we got her next interlude and I confirmed she had three arms. Whether it wasn’t mentioned before or I just flat-out missed it, I’m not sure, but until that moment, I didn’t know Y had three arms, and until that moment, I didn’t realize the interludes were the past, which made the book a little more interesting.

But to what purpose? Because if you strip away the structure, the points of view, the evocative writing, what you have here really is a simple and rather standard plot: a woman is taken from her home, her memory is wiped, and she is remade to be a soldier for someone else. Not just any soldier, but a special soldier. But even though she can’t remember who she used to be, she knows this is wrong, and goes back to get revenge. The end.

Hell, I couldn’t stop imagining this as a British version of Ghost in the Shell. But I bet if you’re reading this review and read my summary, you’re probably thinking of other similar stories. Maybe the Resident Evil film franchise? Those are just the ones we’ve talked about on Speculative Chic. There’s so many more out there.

It’s not to say, however, that all plots must be completely original. Everyone’s telling the same stories to some extent, we’re just putting our own spin on things. So what’s Hill’s spin? Well, and this is where I got a little confused — apparently there’s inter-dimensional travel? Seriously, what is up with that? I think, though I’m not sure: this is where showing versus telling got REALLY confusing in the book. Sometimes you should show, and then cap it off with a tell so the reader knows for sure what happened. What I think happened is that Roy was there when the inter-dimensional rift was discovered, or something. At any rate, my understanding is that people are taken from our world and zapped into another dimension and remade with machinery and brought back and purchased for various trades. Bodies as commodities. Hill reinforces this theme in various ways: beyond Y and her brothers and sisters as products, there’s Roy’s storyline, which is connected to Y’s. Turns out he’s getting armored cars for the man who bought Y as a super-soldier. Roy’s a kind of mercenary: he also hurts and kills people for hire.

Then there’s Mel, who owns her own whorehouse. She’s connected to Y’s story because she’s Sol’s ex, and of course they all have to meet up before the book is over, but also because whoever is ultimately in charge of bringing Y and her brothers and sisters over from the other dimension approaches Mel about switching our her girls for their own products instead.

So there’s layering of theme, which is good. And for a book that’s basically nihilistic and hopeless, because this is not a happy future and this book frankly does not have a happy ending (but it has a better ending than I was expecting it to), it’s a very wide window into humanity. What makes us human, and why do we act in the ways that we do? Hill doesn’t give us any easy answers; he doesn’t even provide a broad generalization of augmented humans = good; non-augments = bad. Everyone here is an individual, and as such, is judged by their own actions. Everything is colored by shades of grey, and even characters you’re meant to like do bad, stupid, or selfish things. Y, whom we later learn is Yasmin, is the most compelling character of all of them, but by time the book was over, I couldn’t help but ask myself, was that it? Was that even worth it?

In Conclusion: Overall, I had a difficult time connecting with Graft. In truth, had I been reading this on my own, I would’ve set it aside as a “did not finish” and forgotten about it. The pace didn’t grab me and the British slang and vernacular kept me at bay, as did Hill’s constant description of place and setting, especially in scenes where the action needed to be moving forward. Having reached the end of the book, there were a lot of scenes that I question the purpose of: all they did was show the setting and/or character, and given the book clocked in at 448 pages, I feel that could’ve been done a bit more economically (especially in regards to Mel and Roy), with more time given to clarify the inter-dimensional business and how it worked. Perhaps, if I’d liked the book enough to re-read it, I’d find the clues and clarity I missed the first time, but alas, that isn’t the case for me. The book does have its strengths, but it’s not one I connected to.


So just how are the PKD awards going to shake out anyway? The nominees are selected by jury, and the book is ultimately awarded by that same jury, if I’m not mistaken. It’s hard to guess, then, which way the jury will go based on past nominees and winners, because the jury is different each year. Hill’s Graft has a cyberpunk, noir feel to its dystopic future, and for the cyberpunk feel alone, I’m reminded of 2005 winner War Surf by M.M. Buckner, but otherwise the books are utterly different.

Compared to the other nominees? I haven’t read them, but I have been reading the reviews and discussing the books with their reviewers. As a book of pure science fiction, I think Graft has a good shot, but so does Yoss’ Super Extra Grande. So that’s my prediction for April 15th, but I’ve been known to be wrong.

Have you been read any of the nominees? Or the reviews? Who do you think will win?

5 Comments

  • Nancy O'Toole Meservier April 12, 2017 at 8:02 am

    Seriously, what has been up with the PKD nominees this year? I feel like the most positive review here was still pretty lukewarm

    Reply
    • steelvictory April 12, 2017 at 8:11 am

      I know! I’m obviously pleased for the authors and their nominations, but none of these reviews have made me want to read any of these books. 🙁

      Reply
    • Shara White April 12, 2017 at 8:57 am

      I did some digging i to the recent years, and contrary to what I originally thought, this is par for the course: a lot of titles people likely haven’t heard of anchored by one title (or publisher) that people have. I think since the Big Two awards have been recognizing SF published in trade, it’s limiting the selection field. There was a time that unless it was published in hardcover, Ancillary Justice would’ve been ignored by those awards (well, that’s been my understanding, anyway).

      But look at the year previous for nominees: the definition of science fiction got really loose with the nomination of MAPLECROFT, which is horror. I adore Cherie Priest as an author, but to see that book nominated for the PKD was a head-scratcher.

      Reply
      • steelvictory April 12, 2017 at 9:31 am

        Don’t worry, the Big Two are still ignoring PLENTY of titles out there. >.>

        Reply
        • Shara White April 12, 2017 at 10:22 am

          They are, no doubt. They focus on fantasy AND science fiction, and PKD focuses on SF. But I still can’t help but wonder what these juries are looking at. Are books submitted for consideration? I wish I still had my finger on the pulse of the market so I was more aware of what SF was being published each year. I think it’s great that small/independent presses are being recognized, but being published by a mainstream publisher doesn’t mean your work isn’t getting overlooked, especially if your work is published in mass market.

          Reply

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