china miéville short story

he first re­ported case of New Death


A lit­tle present for SFX’s birth­day.

Toc­curred on Au­gust 23, 2017, in Ge­orge­town, Guyana. At ap­prox­i­mately 2: 45pm, Jake Mor­ris, a fifty- three- year- old li­brar­ian, en­tered his living room and found his wife, phar­ma­cist Marie‑Therese Mor­ris, fifty- one, mo­tion­less and supine on the floor. “I opened the door onto the soles of her feet,” he has said.

Mr Mor­ris tes­ti­fies that he checked his wife’s pulse and found her cold. His claim to have gone to her side to do so has been the source of much con­tro­versy in neothana­tol­ogy, this ac­tion of course be­ing im­pos­si­ble in the case of the New Dead. Main­stream opin­ion is that this is the in­ac­cu­rate mem­ory of a dis­traught man. A sub­stan­tial mi­nor­ity in­sist that there are no grounds to as­sume such er­ror, and that Ms Mor­ris must there­fore be as­sumed to have been Old Dead at this point, and that her sta­tus changed sec­onds af­ter dis­cov­ery.

Mr Mor­ris went to the tele­phone in the north- eastern cor­ner of the room and sum­moned an am­bu­lance. When he turned back to his wife’s body, New Death had un­mis­tak­ably taken hold.

“I turn around,” he has said, “and her feet are right in front of me again. Point­ing di­rectly at me. Again.”

Dur­ing his call, Ms Mor­ris’s corpse ap­peared to have silently ro­tated on a hor­i­zon­tal axis ap­prox­i­mately 160 de­grees, around a point some­where close to her waist.

With great alarm, Mr Mor­ris be­gan to walk around the body, but he stopped when, in his words, “those feet wouldn’t stop point­ing at me”. Ms Mor­ris’s body ap­peared to him to be swiv­el­ling like a nee­dle on a compass, her feet al­ways fac­ing him.

He re­mained frozen, his wife’s feet a few inches from his own shoes. He was un­will­ing to move and thereby pro­voke that smooth and per­fectly si­lent mo­tion. That was how the paramedics found him, by his dead wife.

At one point in the highly con­fused mo­ments that fol­lowed, a medic de­manded that Mr Mor­ris be care­ful not to tread on his wife’s hair. Which was, how­ever, from Mr Mor­ris’s per­spec­tive, on the other side of her body from him. Thus the speci­ficity of New Death be­gan to emerge. Af­ter the Mor­ris case was that of the Bucharest aneurysm, then the Toronto cross­walk, then the Hong Kong twins. New Death spread at ac­cel­er­at­ing rates. News cov­er­age, which had started as spo­radic, amused and scep­ti­cal, grew rapidly more se­ri­ous. Two weeks af­ter Ms Mor­ris New Died, the sink­ing of the over­loaded ferry Car­ni­vale sail­ing be­tween the Eritrean coast and the Ital­ian port of Lampe­dusa gave the world its first har­row­ing scene of mass New Death.

Now, with the last ver­i­fied Old Death hav­ing oc­curred six years ago, and the up­grad­ing of all hu­man death seem­ingly com­plete, we are in­ured enough to the scenes of count­less New Dead left by drone strike, ter­ror­ist attack, land­slide and pan­demic that it can be hard to re­call the shock oc­ca­sioned by that first spec­ta­cle.

The shots of al­most a hun­dred drowned mi­grants, dead de­spite their lifebelts, their bod­ies oddly stiff, their legs not slant­ing, their feet not sink­ing but vis­i­ble at the sur­face of the wa­ter, are still iconic. It might be thought that, oc­cur­ring on wa­ter, the ap­par­ent ro­ta­tions of the New Dead would not ap­pear quite so un­nat­u­ral ( old- nat­u­ral, to use the now- pre­ferred term) as the same phe­nom­e­non on land. This, how­ever, was not the case.

The quickly leaked footage showed the in­stant and ex­act swivels by which ev­ery drowned mi­grant’s feet al­ways pre­cisely faced ev­ery cam­era. Th­ese re­mained in per­fect syn­chrony. All feet al­ways faced all cam­eras no mat­ter what abrupt and con­tin­gent mo­tions the boats or he­li­copters made, or where they were when they made them. Th­ese move­ments were ob­vi­ously not the re­sults of cur­rents, winds or hid­den en­gines. The feeds from the head­cams of res­cue divers were even more shock­ing. In it, the drowned dead with­out flota­tion de­vices all sink slowly, and ev­ery one of the bod­ies, at ev­ery level, is stiffly ori­ented per­fectly hor­i­zon­tally, with its feet point­ing to­wards ev­ery ris­ing, pan­ick­ing diver. This of course is the case even in the footage shot si­mul­ta­ne­ously from quite dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions, in which the same corpses can be iden­ti­fied.

In the weeks that fol­lowed, more and more scenes of the smooth, pre­cisely flat and si­lent ro­ta­tion of dead were re­leased, the bod­ies hor­i­zon­tal on slopes of vary­ing in­clines, in a Bagh­dad plaza or on a Mex­i­can hill­side or the site of a Dan­ish school shoot­ing. It was, how­ever, the Car­ni­vale dis­as­ter that in­au­gu­rated the era of New Death.

There is of course vari­a­tion among New ca­dav­ers. Arms and legs may be splayed to var­i­ous de­grees, though the range is at­ten­u­ated rel­a­tive to that pos­si­ble in Old Death. The bod­ies of vic­tims of dis­mem­ber­ment or ex­plo­sive force do not re­con­sti­tute, though their com­po­nents, even if scat­tered, lie ac­cord­ing to the con­di­tion of New Death – they are, in other words, New Dead in pieces.

Stated most sim­ply, New Death is the con­di­tion whereby hu­man corpses now lie al­ways on a hor­i­zon­tal vec­tor – no mat­ter the an­gle of the sur­face or the sub­stance of the mat­ter be­low them – and now ori­ent so that their feet are fac­ing all ob­servers, all the time.

Two facts about this epochal thana­to­log­i­cal shift were quickly es­tab­lished:

“we have en­tered a new era of new death stud­ies”

i) New Death is sub­jec­tive. All ob­servers in the pres­ence of New Dead, in per­son or via imag­ing tech­nol­ogy, will per­ceive that body or those bod­ies as ori­ented with feet to­wards them. This re­mains the case when those ob­servers are di­rectly op­po­site each other. Per­cep­tion and ob­ser­va­tion is con­sti­tu­tive of New Death.

ii) New Death is ob­jec­tive. Phys­i­cal in­ter­ven­tions have ver­i­fied that th­ese sub­jec­tive im­pres­sions are not il­lu­sory. The New Dead have mass. They can be in­ter­acted with. The ba­sic po­si­tional pred­i­cates of New Death, how­ever, can­not be over­come. As the no­to­ri­ous Ban­nif- Mur­chau ex­per­i­ment showed, mul­ti­ple ob­servers of a sin­gle New Dead, all per­ceiv­ing the body’s feet to be to­wards them, all in­structed to take hold of the ca­daver at the same in­stant, all com­ing from dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions, will all grasp the feet at the same time. This some­times shock­ing and oc­ca­sion­ally danger­ous vec­toral/ lo­ca­tional slip­page would of course have been im­pos­si­ble in the pre- ND era. It is not just bi­ol­ogy, but physics, that have changed.

New Death has had no im­pact on death rates or causes. Nor has the agen­tial sta­tus of the dead vis- a- vis the living changed – they re­main as quiet as their Old Dead pre­cur­sors. New Death is a phe­nom­e­non not of dy­ing, nor of death, but of the quid­dity of dead­ness.

Philoso­phies of its causes, ef­fects, and mean­ings ( if any) are, of course, in their in­fancy. But they have, very re­cently, taken an ex­cit­ing turn.

At the 2024 Mumbai Con­fer­ence “The New Dead and Their Crit­ics”, PJ Mukhopad­hyay, a grad­u­ate stu­dent of dig­i­tal de­sign, gave a pa­per on “New Death as a Game”. In the course of her pre­sen­ta­tion she pointed out, al­most in pass­ing, that a lo­cus clas­si­cus of a foot- toview­point ori­en­ta­tion of the dead was the ear­li­est gen­er­a­tion of First- Per­son Shoot­ers.

In such games, no mat­ter where “you” stood, your de­feated enemies would lie with their feet to­wards you, shift­ing as you shifted. This would be the case un­til, fi­nally, af­ter a pro­grammed time, their bod­ies winked out of play.

With this in­sight, we have en­tered a new era of New Death Stud­ies. In the words of the most re­cent is­sue of The Cam­bridge Jour­nal of Phi­los­o­phy, “no one is yet clear on why Mukhopad­hyay’s ob­ser­va­tion is im­por­tant. That it is im­por­tant – that it changes ev­ery­thing – no doubt re­mains”.

Un­der­stand­ing re­mains eva­sive, but cul­ture is prag­matic and quick. Those for whom show­ing the soles of feet has been an in­sult adapt no less than do those who de­light in in­sult­ing them. A plethora of cer­e­monies are emerg­ing around the in­tern­ment and ven­er­a­tion of New Dead. The­olo­gies of all tra­di­tions are, mostly, smoothly ac­com­mo­dat­ing them, with new in­ter­pre­ta­tions of old texts and ways. The New Dead are al­ready com­pletely ba­nalised rep­re­sen­ta­tion­ally in movies, tele­vi­sion dra­mas and other com­modi­ties – in­clud­ing, of course, video games. The point is not that ro­tat­ing sugar- skele­tons with wind- up han­dles are sold by Mex­i­can ven­dors: the point is that they sell in sim­i­lar num­bers to any other Dios de la Muer­tas items.

This in­sou­ciance is ad­mirable. But it is also some­how in­ad­e­quate. We have tweaked our var­i­ous bells and smells, but we still die as we al­ways died, and live as we did be­fore we died.

We are not ready. What would be­ing ready con­sti­tute? What might the endgame of New Death be?

This is not a man­i­festo. It is not even a pre­quel to such. We don’t know what to call for, to live up to the po­ten­tial­ity of New Death. This is a call for a man­i­festo to be writ­ten. An ex­hor­ta­tion for an ex­hor­ta­tion, a plea to have it de­manded of us to live as we must and New Die well.

We must pro­ceed ac­cord­ing to a pre­sump­tion that we might have some­thing up to which to live, that there might be a te­los to all our up­graded dead, that we might even­tu­ally suc­ceed in some­thing, that we might un­lock achieve­ments, if we die cor­rectly. And, con­versely, that if we do not, we will con­tinue to fail.

What the stakes of that suc­cess and that fail­ure might be, none of us yet know.

We will all learn.

This story is taken from Three Mo­ments Of An Ex­plo­sion: Sto­ries By China Miéville, pub­lished in hard­back and ebook on 30 July.

The au­thor.

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