Book review: Surrogate Protocol explores what it's like to be immortal in Singapore

Renewing one’s identity card is tedious enough when one is a normal human being, but for Landon Lock, the complications are manifold.

Landon, after all, is an immortal Singaporean. He has spent more than a century laying low, forging identity after identity for himself - in recent years, this has meant nicking live birth notices from hospital delivery suites and ICs left behind to "chope" tables at the food court.

It does not help that his memory spans only days. Or that agents from sinister organisations appear to be hunting him for the immortal serum coursing through his veins.

Architect Tham's debut novel was one of the titles shortlisted for last year's Epigram Books Fiction Prize. Despite its title, evocative of hard science fiction, Surrogate Protocol is actually more of a speculative excursion through history.

The idea of immortal beings living through the rise and fall of empires is not a new one, but it is intriguing to see how this concept unfolds on the much smaller scale of the little red dot.



    By Tham Cheng-E

    Epigram Books/Paperback/ 388 pages/$26.64/Major bookstores and stars

    The novel ambles too much in exposition of Landon's numerous pasts and presents a muddle of allies and enemies whose general lack of personality makes them hard to distinguish or keep track of. Landon himself is too passive a protagonist to keep the reader riveted.

Being ageless, Landon bears witness to many of the island's key historical events: He is warded at Alexandra Hospital when the Japanese massacre its patients in World War II; he works as a barista in Robinson's Department Store at Raffles Place when it is destroyed by fire in 1972; and so on.

There is even a scene in which he encounters the infant who will grow up to be Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

The standout character is Hannah/Clara/Vivian, a femme fatale as skilled at assassination as she is at the Argentinian tango, who may or may not be on Landon's side.

Her flashbacks form some of the novel's best segments, including a lively scene in a 1933 Great World cabaret hall and a brief, bittersweet colonial garden party in 1856 that, more than any of Landon's bouts of philosophical despair, reveals the emotional cost of living forever.

If you liked this, read: Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan (Del Rey, 2003, $26.15, pre-order from Books Kinokuniya), a hard-boiled cyberpunk thriller set in a 25th-century dystopia where death has become nearly obsolete because people can be "re-sleeved", or uploaded into new bodies after they die.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2017, with the headline 'Humdrum of immortality'. Print Edition | Subscribe