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.