Thursday, May 26, 2011

Review: Mappa Mundi by Justina Robson

Mappa Mundi by Justina Robson
Published: Ballantine Books, 2006
Nominations: Arthur C. Clarke Award

The Book:

“In the near future, when medical nanotechnology has made it possible to map a model of the living human brain, radical psychologist Natalie Armstrong sees her work suddenly become crucial to a cutting-edge military project for creating comprehensive mind-control. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Jude Westhorpe, FBI specialist, is tracking a cold war defector long involved in everything from gene sequencing to mind-mapping. But his investigation has begun to affect matters of national security--throwing Jude and Natalie together as partners in trouble, deep trouble, from every direction.

This fascinating novel explores the nature of humanity in the near future, when the power and potential of developing technologies demand that we adapt ourselves to their existence--whatever the price.”

I read this novel as a part of the 2011 Women in Science Fiction Book Club.  This is the first book I’ve read by Justina Robson.

My Thoughts:

Mappa Mundi was essentially a hard SF thriller.  The story had a heavy focus on the details and uses of mind-affecting technology, but it also spent a lot of time on the political maneuvering and espionage carried out by the many characters.  The technology and its implications were discussed extensively, but the exact method of its working was only given to the reader in fragments. 
In general, it seemed that the technology could be used to destroy, recreate, or alter someone’s mind in almost any way.  From my understanding of it, it seemed that a mental operating system, called NervePath, must first be installed in a person’s mind.  Then, ‘MappaWare’, a type of software, could be run on their mind to change even their deepest held beliefs.   The psychologist Natalie was also working on a program called ‘SelfWare’, which was intended to enhance human consciousness.  I found this kind of mental programming intriguing, and I couldn’t help wondering what buggy MappaWare code would do to someone’s mind.  For the most part, though, the story focused on software that functioned exactly as intended.

I enjoyed the discussions of the possible uses and abuses of the MappaWare, and what it would do to the concept of the self and freedom.  MappaWare could be used to cure mental illness, but it could also be used to control the minds of all humanity.  Its near-limitless power made it a kind of mental doomsday device for the various political factions to fight over.  The MappaWare technology and the complicated schemes of many groups to possess and use it are the driving force of the story.

The format of the novel is map-themed, and it contains ‘Legends’, vignettes that set up the identities of the key players, a ‘Compass Rose’ section that shows the event that brings them together, a ‘Map’ section for the main story, and an epilogue called an ‘Update’ at the end.  It was a neat way to organize things, but it kind of emphasizes the fact that this is a very plot- and structure-driven book.  While the characters were superficially interesting, I never felt much of an emotional connection to them. They were more like set pieces in the plot, and so they had very distinct but static personalities.  I felt like none of them grew much past my first impression.

I think this is a matter of personal preference, but I also had a hard time with Robson’s writing style.  It seems that my brain and hers just don’t operate on the same wavelength, and mine just kept snagging on little details. Specifically, there were many situations where her word choices or phrasing seemed unnecessarily confusing or contradictory to me.  For example, at one point Natalie notes a companion’s surprising codeine intake with the thought:

“That was more codeine than would kill a cat.” (p. 386)

The structure of the sentence implies that it was a large dose of codeine, but the chosen comparison seems to imply the opposite.  Cats are very small animals, and they typically can’t take nearly as much medicine as a human. According to my sources, codeine can be safely given to cats only in very small quantities.  I imagine that a dose capable of killing a cat could still be a pretty small dose for a human.  So now, I have no idea what that sentence was meant to imply about the amount of codeine consumed. A few chapters later, it is clarified that the dose of codeine was, in fact, large.  It seemed like I was constantly getting sidetracked into puzzling over those kinds of minor points. 

My Rating: 3/5

I enjoyed Mappa Mundi as a hard SF thriller, and as a discussion of the possible influence the existence of mind-altering technology might have on human society. The story itself was very interesting on an intellectual level, though I had very little emotional attachment to the characters.  I enjoyed the discussions about what constitutes a person’s ‘self’, and how MappaWare should be used, if at all, to improve the world.  There were many conflicting sides trying to pursue what they thought was right, mostly through the use of manipulation and deceit.  However, the complexities of the plot seemed to overshadow the development of the many major characters.  Also, I was a little disappointed with the conclusion, which seemed almost to render the entire story pointless. On the one hand, I enjoyed the technology and the political-machination-filled plot, but on the other, I was bothered by my lack of emotional connection and the unsatisfying conclusion.

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