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Mindplayers

mindplayersMindplayers by Pat Cadigan
Published 1988 by Gollancz

In a world where virtual reality is inside everyone’s head and you can choose to be someone else if you tire of your own personality, somethings are still illegal. Like being crazy without a license. Seeking altered states of consciousness and living an impulsive, directionless life, Allie Haas tries a black market trip into paranoia. It leaves her unconscious and dying and her dealer drops her off at a mental drycleaner, leading to both of them being arrested.

Allie is offered a deal: train as a mindplayer to facilitate the work and games of others, or be imprisoned. She takes the deal.

Mindplayers is a fascinating exploration of our inner mental worlds and how we use narrative to create ourselves and our lives. Allie finds intimacy with others in the mental realm, discovers what happens when someone has their personality stolen and helps other discover meaning in their creative work. It’s like meditation and psychology combined, enhanced and lifted to another level. What might be possible if we could have such insight into ourselves?

I really enjoyed this. It combines great storytelling with serious exploration of science and technology and its impact on humans. Science fiction at its best.

Necrotech

necrotech-book-cover-676x1024Necrotech by K. C. Alexander
Published 2016 by Angry Robot

This was a lot of fun. Riko is a street thug, the muscle in a gang of criminals clinging to existence in a near-future cyberpunk dystopia. She wakes up in an unfamiliar lab and has to fight her way out. Riko thinks it’s just the result of a bender but soon discovers her world is far more messed up than that. In order to find out what happened to her Riko is forced to reassess all her relationships and everything she thinks she knows about her world and herself.

Necrotech is fast-paced and relentless and carried me quickly into the world. It’s possibly the most entertaining book I’ve read this year. The world-building is full of lots of lovely, rich details. I particularly liked the idea that everyone has a chipset implanted in their brain for communications which constantly exposed them to advertising, unless you can pay to remove ads.

Riko is an interesting narrator. She has a bolshy attitude and a strong tendency to punch first and ask questions later – even when she knows full well that this is against her best interests. Towards the end of the book Riko begins to develop some flickers of self-awareness. She has doubts all the way through due to the memory loss – because she doesn’t know what happened she has to question her actions. Some of the evidence she uncovers indicates that she might be involved in activities Riko finds repugnant, and yet she can’t be confident that it’s not true. I hope this is the first in a series because the book ends on the cusp of some serious character development.

If there’s one thing that I found a little disappointing it’s that Riko is a strong female character in a man’s world. In almost all respects, Necrotech has a diverse cast of characters with a range of skin colour, sexuality, and physical abilities presented in a way that adds to the worldbuilding. It’s really very good. Except for the lack of supporting female characters. I would have liked more. But it’s a minor point.

Necrotech is gripping, funny, shocking, and absorbing. I read the first few pages and couldn’t put it down. The pace keeps up all the way through the book and the surprises keep coming as Riko uncovers more. I loved it and I’m looking forward to a sequel.

 

Four Ways to Forgiveness

forgivenessI love the title of Four Ways to Forgiveness by Ursula Le Guin.

It’s a short story collection and normally I would steer clear of short stories as I don’t find them as satisfying as novels. This book came to me as part of the collection from an emigrating friend and, while I didn’t connect with the Earthsea series, I’d really enjoyed The Left Hand of Darkness. A combination of title and author drew me to the book.

The four stories in Four Ways to Forgiveness are set in the same world/universe as The Left Hand of Darkness on the planets Werel and Yeowe. Werel’s societies are based on enslavement on one ethnic group by another. One nation, Voe Deo, colonised a nearby planet using a largely slave population to exploit the planet’s resources.

The first story, Betrayals, is set on Yeowe after the War of Liberation, in which the slave population overthrew the bosses. Yoss is a retired school teacher who reluctantly cares for her mad neighbour, Abberkam, who was a war lord and now lives alone in a sparsely populated area of Yeowe. Yoss has reasons to hate Abberkam and reasons to distrust men in general, but an attachment forms between them. Then Yoss’s house burns down: Abberkam rescues her cat and offers her a room in his house.

I liked this story the most. It is gentle and wistful, yet approaches some heavy themes. It talks about forms of oppression and how freedom requires more work than simply overthrowing the masters. Age has mellowed two characters who might have been enemies in their younger days, and the relationship is facilitated by Abberkam’s confessions, apologies, and adoption of more respectful behaviour. It is both sweet and real. Forgiveness is reached through time.

Forgiveness Day moves to Werel and the story of an Envoy of the Ekumen in one of the smaller, more traditional, countries. Solly is a female of an egalitarian society and she struggles to adapt to a patriarchal system. Although her struggle isn’t as great as Gatay’s struggle to accept a female Envoy. She strikes up a friendship with a member of a troupe of entertainers – they are transvestites and it is considered shocking to openly associate with them – who also happens to be involved in a movement to liberate Werel’s slaves. The story touches on Solly’s attempts to treat the slaves she’s given as equals and their resistance to her behaviour. There is a terrorist attack and Solly and her bodyguard are taken hostage. During their captivity they come to know each other better and understand the roots of the things they had been offended by. Forgiveness is reached through understanding.

The third story, A Man of the People, is also a story of an outsider to the Werel/Yeowe system. Havzhiva is Hainish and grows up expecting his life to follow a defined pattern. He grows to realise he wants more and leaves his community. It’s a difficult choice as few people leave their community and, if you do, you can never really go back. You might be able to return physically but the psychological connection has changed. Havzhiva spends his youth studying and exploring relationships. Eventually he becomes ambassador to Yeowe and it is there he finds a home. The society is struggling with change. The men believe themselves free but the women find themselves oppressed by the former male slaves. Everyone carries the physical scars of slavery and war. Slaves were allowed no family life or education and those institutions are in their infancy. The cities are changing (progressing) faster than the rural areas. There is conflict between different visions of a free Yeowe. Havzhiva forms a friendship with a nurse that lasts lifetime and at the end he tells her he has learned acceptance. Forgiveness is reached through acceptance.

A Woman’s Liberation, the final story, is the story of Rakam, a female slave. As a child she grows up in a compound and sees her mother rarely. Her mother goes to the house and is not a field slave. As she grows, she knows her skin is darker than the other slaves and comes to realise this is because one of the bosses is her father. Her mother secures her a place in the house as slave to the plantation owner’s wife, Lady Tazeu. She is raped repeatedly by Tazeu, who is isolated and lonely and has limited freedom of her own. Rakam is given to the boss’s son, who refuses to use her because she can’t consent, and tells her that he is working to free all his father’s slaves. When the estate is destroyed and the slaves take their freedom they are simply captured again and taken to another estate. Conditions have become harsher. Rakam says she has papers but they are taken from her. The path to freedom is dangerous and is not one act of liberation but must be defended everyday. Rakam is freed again and makes her way to the city where she educates herself. This story reflects how people internalise the philosophies of oppression as children and must work hard to change what they believe about themselves. Rakam realises that there are layers of freedom struggle. This story is most directly analogous to the institution of slavery on our own world and the complexities of liberation experienced by the enslaved. Rakam becomes a teacher and a writer, a powerful voice and a respected academic. Forgiveness is reached through achievement.

The stories of Four Ways to Forgiveness are all linked and together build up a picture of changing societies and the struggles of the people seeking emancipation. The writing is elegant, the characterisation is deft. These are deeply political stories yet character always comes first. I found them enriching and moving. Not only did I enjoy them as stories, but I learned something about the human experience. Wonderful.

The Exile Waiting

exileFirst of all, apologies for not posting for months. I’m taking a diploma in life coaching and all I’ve been reading are coaching books. Some of which have been excellent.

I read The Exile Waiting by Vonda McIntyre some while ago and I enjoyed it a lot. The story has stuck with me. Humanity has long since spread into the stars except for a remnant population on Earth. The surface of Earth is storm-torn and unlivable and a small city scrabbles a poor living underground. Mischa is a thief, struggling to steal enough to satisfy her uncle who controls her through torturing her telepathic, mentally disabled sister. It’s doubly hard once her brother is lost to the drugs he uses to block out their sister’s psychic cries.

But Mischa has a plan to get off Earth. It involves the ship that arrives carrying genetically modified twins set on removing the ruler of Center and establishing their own power base there. One of the twins finds himself separating from the other, thinking independently, disagreeing, wanting something else. This independence sets brother against brother.

This is a beautifully realised world with layers and depth. I particularly enjoyed the twins, their relationship and their eventual separation. The exquisite pain of growth is well captured. The loss of what one had, the gradual acceptance that what was can never be again, the pain of growing towards something unknown. I loved the hard choices Mischa has to make.

I’m growing to be a fan of Vonda McIntyre. Fortunately, book mountain has a few more of her titles in there.

Huysman’s Pets

Huysman’s Pets z4500.inddby Kate Wilhelm
Published by Gollancz in 1986

Drew Lancaster is asked to write the biography of the recently deceased Huysman. He’s not convinced he wants to do it but agrees to talk to Huysman’s widow. As he reads the Professor’s papers and talks to his colleagues, Lancaster gradually uncovers government sponsored experiments on children designed to reveal psionic powers.

Huysman’s Pets is a sci-fi thriller set in 1980s America. The thriller part is the investigation of the secretive work Huysman was conducting and who was funding it. The sci-fi part is the explanation for the powers of the children which is based on quantum mechanics and the concept of singlets.

It’s an easy read and the characters are engaging. Drew is a bit of a mess, doesn’t really want to get involved and is trying to get his family back together. He still has a sexual relationship with his ex-wife who is being bullied by her father into marriage with the senator she works for and is being tailed by special agents because the owner of the bookshop he patronised used to be a counterfeiter. I liked that the two scientists who help him figure out what’s happening are women, and I like the depth given to the character of Irma, Huysman’s widow. There are a lot of female characters in the book, which is nice.

The science is pretty low key in the novel. There isĀ a theme of coincidence and synchronicity running through the book that is linked to the quantum physics thatĀ underpins the special abilities that the children have. And in the end, all Huysman’s children are freed from the hospital they’d been kept prisoner and let loose on the world. Who knows what they’ll do?

Station Eleven

stationelevenA virulent flu virus spreads like wildfire through the world. Almost everyone dies. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is the story of what happens afterwards.

Kirsten was a child when the virus struck North America, performing on stage in King Lear alongside Arthur Leander, an aging movie star. A few days later, nearly everyone is dead. The next ten years are so traumatic that Kirsten represses most of the memories. As an adult she is part of a caravan of performers, the Travelling Symphony, moving between the small settlements that remain after the collapse of civilization.

Both pre- and post-apocalyptic worlds are revealed through the stories of those whose lives intersected with Arthur’s. His first wife, Miranda, who dies in Malaysia when the virus strikes; Jeevan, a paparazzo turned paramedic who photographed Arthur; his son, Tyler, and second wife, Elizabeth; his best friend, Clark; and Kirsten, to whom he gave the comics that she carefully preserves when she’s lost everything else.

I loved this. The prose is lyrical and engaging. It’s fairly literary in style but is so well-executed that I didn’t mind. The characters are interesting and there is enough suspense in their stories to keep you turning the pages. I liked the way the stories switch between the past and the present and the connections between the characters are slowly built up. Mandel realistically presents a scenario for how the whole world might collapse in a matter of weeks if enough people die in a short space in time. It was quite chilling to think about. Definitely read this.