Justina Robson is one of the more interesting SF writers to have emerged from the UK in recent years. In a relatively short time, she’s produced some of the more thought-provoking, critically acclaimed novels in the genre, with nominations for awards such as the Philip K. Dick award and the British Science Fiction Association award. Her second novel, Mappa Mundi, published in the UK in 2000, now appears on US shelves through Pyr, is no exception. The novel is part medical thriller, part spy/geopolitical thriller, and Big Idea SF novel.
Mappa Mundi follows several characters as the technology for mapping the human brain, and consciousness, is developed and presented to the public. Robson does something interesting to introduce her characters. She presents a “Legend” playing on the map theme of the book. Whereas most such character intros state only the briefest bits of information about the characters (i.e. Natalie Armstrong – doctor), Robson tells a story, a combination of a biography and short story, of each integral character. This was an effective showcasing of Robson’s ability to weave character and story seamlessly.
As for the story itself, it speaks very well to themes of many of its genre predecessors and current fears regarding the loss of identity. While mapping the mind might prove an interesting and useful technology, as with all such things, the price and downside may ultimately be too much to pay. With the mind mapped, identity and free will may be lost. Indeed, those pulling the strings behind the development of this technology have this in mind. While there are several primary characters, Natalie Armstrong stands out as the protagonist, she is after all the scientist who helped to develop Mappa Mundi, though for altruistic reasons like treating depression and personality disorders.
One of the power players in the technology is a man who goes by many names, though for most of the novel he is known as Mikhail Guskov. Guskov has changed identities several times during the course of his life, playing a con-man, thief, drug-runner who now wishes to put the technology to his own use. Tracking Guskov is FBI agent Jude Westhorpe, a man of two worlds. Westhorpe is torn between his Cherokee heritage and his job. Furthermore, his romantic self is also torn between Natalie and a former colleague.
Robson is too clever a writer to allow the story to rest on the shoulders of these main characters, the supporting characters fill an almost protagonistical role, at least in terms of their depth. One character in particular, Dan, was so subtly and expertly drawn that the initial perception about him could be considered misleading. It wasn’t in what Robson showed about Dan, it was what she left out, never lying, only allowing the reader the briefest of glimpses, which looked a bit different when the full picture of him was presented.
Another strong element of the story is how plausible this future is, much of the technology seems to be right around the corner from today’s technology. While the technology of mapping the human mind may not be readily available, one gets the sense that it might be something the government is working behind closed doors. The political climate and global settings also resonated with those of today’s world. It isn’t always easy for an SF writer to blur this line, and Robson did so very effectively.
Although Silver Screen is a slitghtly stronger effort; with Mappa Mundi, Robson proves she is a smart and thought-provoking writer with her hand on of the pulse and thoughts of today’s world.
© 2006 Rob H. Bedford