Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Women of Science Fiction Book Club: Mappa Mundi by Justina Robson

I'm doing the Women of Science Fiction Book Club over at Dreams and Speculation, and Mappa Mundi is the first book I've been able to finish and comment on due to my work schedule. (I am so disappointed I missed out on The Dispossessed! I get downright lyrical about the works of Ursula K. LeGuin.) Here is a mini-review:

Mappa Mundi is a thoughtful technothriller, heavy on the techno, biotech to be specific. Medical nanites are a thing, and they are able to change and induce growth in neurons, useful for the brain-damaged... meanwhile, a coalition of scientists funded by some mysterious dude is developing a "mappa mundi," a full map of the brain and, by extrapolation, the mind. Mix the two and you have either an awesome medical and metaphysical development or weaponized mind control, depending on who you're working for. It's a little confusing, not that Robson goes into huge amounts of technical details - the infodumps are very high-level, suitable for consumption by a reasonably sophisticated reader of thrillers.

Because this is totally a thriller. I didn't expect it - I thought the club was focusing on straight-up 100 percent sci-fi-genred stuff, and the "Legends" part at the beginning, vignettes of defining moments from the lives of some of the main characters, was very evocative and hinted at a book heavy on character development.

But when the spunky lady scientist's hapless coworker goes into a bar and is confronted by BOTH the double agent who's got him spying on our heroine's work AND the crook he owes gambling debts to, it was pretty obvious that what we're dealing with here is a thriller with a detailed sci-fi framework. There is a sexy FBI agent. Yes, he's the love interest, and yes, the romance feels kind of out of the blue - "you're the heroine, I'm the hero, let's do it!" There are scary guys in overcoats chasing them in alleyways. Classified files, as in physical file folders, change hands in mysterious manners. Everyone is double-crossing everyone else at all times, and the villain doesn't seem to have much motivation other than "I'm kind of a sociopath, let's do this thing." I don't generally read thrillers - not that I dislike them, The Da Vinci Code was lots of fun, but if I'm going to read mindless escapism I prefer space opera and sword and sorcery. I am guessing that as technothrillers go this one is excellent. But to me, the weak character development (when it was hinted we'd get so much more of it!), the sort of tacked-on romance and some over-the-top confusing thriller-type plot elements took away from the science fiction, which was what I was reading this for.

Spoilers! The scientist gets infected with the nanites, and medically they are programmed to integrate her brain into a better-functioning whole, or something? This gets turned up to 11 thanks to the title technology and industrial sabotage and WHAM! Metaphysics. Glowing, time-traveling, I Can See It All Now Dr. Manhattan-type stuff. I know this is an issue of personal taste, but I don't like to mix metaphysics and technological sci-fi, especially when the tech is plausibly realistic and near-future. I also am not really into the idea that our minds can unlock the potential to become beings of pure energy. Heck, for me telepathy is a stretch. Unless the book starts out assuming telepathy or humans turning into beings of pure energy, in which case it's just fine. Basically, I can take one leap of faith per book, but not two. The metaphysical angle is definitely a thread through the entire book, though.

I hope I'm not giving the impression I didn't like the book a lot, because I did. It's definitely a reread. It's just... shallower than I hoped it would be? The question of how our minds are constructed and what they can do is huge and kind of awesome, and Robson approaches it with enthusiasm, but it would have been nice if she'd have followed through with more of that tantalizingly promised character development from the Legends section.

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