Friday, 22 June 2012

Review: Mindjammer by Sarah Newton

If role playing were a boy, Sarah Newton would be the smart girlfriend that was ever so slightly too good for him.  The evidence I point to for this is her first novel, Mindjammer, a heady mixture of action, crunchy science fiction elements and that perennial cyberpunk or transhuman question: what does human mean?

The narrative is a thick, detailed piece of hugely advanced science fiction, that's almost William Gibson like in the intensity of the ideas it introduces; certainly I haven't felt so overwhelmed by concepts since I first read Neuromancer, and I don't consider myself to be a stranger to odd ideas.  The setting that Ms Newton has created is full of technological marvels, ranging from what might be considered digital telepathy to implants that allow the characters to think their way online or enhance their reflexes; essentially they are in complete control of their biology and capable to correct any fluctuations that arise if they need to (so they can willfully boost or suppress adrenaline for instance).  In addition, as memories are stored in the Mindscape (a sort of internet that's connected by minds rather than terminals), allowing a sort of resurrection for the deceased who can be stored in inanimate objects like guns or spaceships and operate them.  The plot follows this point, asking in a way what makes the memories of  dead person, if they can learn and adapt, any different to the mind a living person.  In fact it suggests that a virtual existence, unfettered by the restraints of the flesh may be a purer way to exist; so much so that it seduces one of the protagonists.

The downside of the novel's intensity is that I found it a little difficult to reconnect with the book when I came back to it after a little break and had to remind myself what things like P-Suits were and what some of other the terms the book uses meant.  I imagine that if I'd kept up with it that wouldn't have been an issue though.

The pace is often frenetic, characters are busy doing things, rather than thinking about them and most parts of the novel lead to combat of some form or another.  It's to the author's credit that she makes these fights inventive and entertaining, rather than just another bump in the road.  She has clearly thought through the repercussions of her setting and the applications of the technology she's furnished it with.

I should say that from the first this is a gamer's novel, it reads like a campaign in places; which isn't a criticism given that the source material is an RPG.  It shows in the characters too, to an extent, the team is constructed very much the way a gaming group often is; you have Clay, the thinker, Stark the guy who went for all the combat modifications he could and a mysterious hole in his memories, Lyra, an advanced techno thief and Max who acts as a sort of wheelman come schmoozer.  This doesn't hurt the narrative of the novel but it's an interesting choice to make, especially when it's revealed that two of the characters are criminals working off their misdeeds by doing the Commonality's dirty work (the Commonality being the big, galactic government of the piece) in a rather Suicide Squad like fashion.   So effectively is this done that Stark's amnesia starts to look suspicious - if the others are criminals, could he be and what could be so heinous that his mind would be wiped.  As such the revelation of his true nature at the end of the novel is almost a let down; I felt that a lot more could have been done with the character.

The villains are an interesting bunch, ranging from a Servalan-esque dominatrix in charge of a secret project to a sadistic digital godhead with lofty ambitions.  In between is a patsy who seemingly keeps doing heel turns from ally to enemy and back again in a fashion that doesn't entirely work, but is still entertaining to read.
This aside the only complaint thing that niggled is that the end does feel a little like a Deus Ex Machina, even if it's one we see being established.  I appreciate that by this point in the book the stakes are so high and the vista so broad that the only plausible action is the arrival of a fleet of space ships but at the same time it felt as if the final victory was snatched from the protagonists' grasp in favour of an NPC getting the glory.

All in all though, I'd say that Ms Newton has a bright future ahead of her and science fiction may have a new star just forming in its firmament.