Sci-Fi Review - Levels: The Host by Peter Emshwiller

As hard as it is to believe that it's been 25 years since Peter Emshwiller's cyberpunk classic first hit shelves, it's even harder to accept that it's been out of print for so long. Fortunately, in celebration of it's silver anniversary, it's now available as an e-book, complete with a new intro and a shiny new cover.

Fortunately, the story itself hasn't changed, and neither has the telling. Levels: The Host still has that early 90s, edge-of-apocalypse, pulp sci-fi sort of feel to it, but it's surprisingly fresh and original. Re-reading it now, after so many years, it's just as imaginative and just as much fun as the first time around.

Part of what makes the story so attractive is the simple ways in which Emshwiller subverts expectations - beginning with language. Instead of inventing new slang that's dated almost as soon as the final page is turned, he plays with words we already know, extending conversational trends, turning the f-bomb into a part of everyday speech, and making words like rape the coarsest of curses. Even his hero is a subversion, an all-around average guy who wants nothing more than a chance to be a mother (not in a gender sense, but that of gender roles).

Yes, Watly Caiper is a First Leveler, a denizen of the subterranean industrial slums, who aspires to an impossible dream of motherhood. In order to save up enough money to cover the costs, he has applied to become a host, renting out his body to angry, horny, or bored Second Levelers who want to to play in the slums without risking their bodies. It's a dangerous job, despite the multiple safeguards, but it pays extraordinarily well. Unfortunately for Watly, his second gig not only sees his body being used to assassinate one of the most prominent Second Level businessmen around, but the stranger taking a ride inside him has worked very hard to disable all those safeguards and frame Watly for murder.

What follows is a classic thriller, with Watly desperately trying to evade capture while trying to clear his name. The set pieces are fantastic, dark and claustrophobic on the First Level, and gleaming chrome and blue skies on the Second. There's at least one narrow escape in just about every chapter, a few great chase scenes, and more than one double-cross that proves to be as clever as it is entertaining. The emphasis here is very much on the human element, with technology playing a supporting role, as evidenced by the experience of hosting. While we do learn about the how and why of it works, it's really the sensory experience of what Watly feels and how he experiences his world as a consciousness with no physical control over his own body that drives the story.

Levels: The Host is a fun, fast-paced read that doesn't try to 'wow' the reader with technological genius, and which avoids the temptation to drive any sort of 'hard' moralizing or ecological message. The climax is something of a shocker, setting up the events of Short Blade, but the core mystery here is resolved.

Mass Market Paperback, 368 pages
Orginally published April 1st 1991 by Spectra


  1. I missed it the first time, so glad it's now available as an eBook.


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