Paftoo, a man-made bod, and others like him have been created to maintain Harkaway Hall, the last remaining estate of open space. The bods are instructed to clean fields, sing jingles, and suggest sales to the “intrepid” (who are anything but) humans who visit this commercial theme park. The bods turn off at night, all but Paftoo who, in true Jonathan Livingston Seagull style, wants something more. His quest leads him to lifeform 3, a magnificent horse. But he must be careful. If the authorities discover he is different, they will reprogram him, which will strip him of all memory.
The author wields metaphor, irony, and satire with a deft hand. Ironically, bods such as Paftoo (the nonhumans) are the ones truly capable of finer human emotions. The humans are concerned with consumerism and cheaply-wrought profit. The setting is a humancentric world in which the humans are absent. When at last the humans make an appearance, they seem utterly lacking in humanity. It is the bods who embody compassion and dignity and responsibility.
This novel has been described as literary scifi, and I think the description is apt. For me, a defining aspect of literary writing is its ability to awaken ideas. There’s a sort of thought maelstrom that literary writers swim in. Sounds incestuous, I know, but Lifeform Three really sent me into a thought spin.
As part of my thought spin, Lifeform Three connected me to many other works. Among them, Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut. I thought of the merging of past and present in both Slaughterhouse and Lifeform. I also thought of Vonnegut’s little satirical twists such as the aliens shaped like the plumber’s helper tool. In Morris’s novel the bots spend a great deal of time operating and exclaiming over poover machines that they use to vacuum fields for the intrepid guests. (You’ll have to figure out the purpose of these machines yourself as I ain’t saying.)
The theme of memory and soul reminds me of the work of Oliver Sacks in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Sacks, a psychiatrist, describes patients who have lost memory as beings who seem to have lost soul and purpose. I see this play out in Paftoo’s desperate struggle not to be reprogrammed, not to lose his sense of self, and in his drive to create notes and mementos. And this connects me to the movie Memento–again an examination of the relationship of soul/self to memory. Finally, I reflected on Morris’s other novel My Memories of A Future Life, which, as the title suggests also delves into the mysteries of memory. I guess that’s one of the effects of literary writing. Like it or not, you’re going to have to think.
Lifeform Three is a thought-provoking novel written in a spare, interior style that suits the subject matter and the interiority of Paftoo. That said, I would have liked a little more “exterior” story to up the pace a bit. If you like to think along with your scifi, you should find plenty of fodder in this novel. And if you love horses (lifeform 3), this is your book.