Divided into a triptych of three different stories, Specimen Days transports the reader to 19th century New York at the height of the industrial revolution, a post 9/11 New York in the 21st century coping with the terrible machinations of terrorism, and a fictitious world 150 years into the future, where New York has been transformed into a post-apocalyptic society, where humans, machines, and even the new immigrants - the extraterrestrials - are all living together in an uneasy dance of tolerance.
As with previous work Michael Cunningham turns to the great American poet Walt Whitman for inspiration. The result is a volume of three stories with each chapter unfolding as a different genre - ghost story, thriller, and science fiction - all interconnected with the haunting lines from Whitman.
Specimen Days also follows three main characters, Luke, Simon and Katherine through almost three hundred years of human history, as they are gradually transformed by the world around them. Their journey is one of self- knowledge, where they must realize that we are "part of something vaster and more marvelous than the living can imagine."
In the first chapter, the story centres around a deformed child named Luke who works in an ironworks factory and is in love with his dead brother's fiancé. In the second chapter (the present day) the key character is another deformed child, who has been raised to be a terrorist and who has spent his life trapped in an apartment with walls covered in the pages of "Leaves of Grass".
The third section delves into science fiction, with a character who is half-human, half-robot, and travels across a radiation-wasted United States with an alien companion.
With it's universal themes of man against the machine, and its vision of a dark, socially fractured, almost hopeless future, the novel takes the reader on a bleak journey, a ride through three different time periods, each fraught with chaos, unease, and turmoil, and poses a vision of a future society that is far from utopian.
Michael Cunningham's masterful and lyrical novel is a disturbing and deeply disconcerting meditation on the state of humanity. Life, death, and the human continuum are central themes of Specimen Days, but the author is also interested in exploring where humanity's relationship with technology, terrorism, and the fully mechanized world will go. Like Whitman, Cunningham believes that we are part of something vaster and more marvelous than the living can imagine.