Justina Robson Mappa Mundi. Tor Books, 2001. Pp. 480. ISBN 0333754387. £9.99.

Reviewed by Djibril

This second novel by the author of the now serially award-nominated Natural History (2003) tells an intriguing story both steeped in the tradition of modern speculative fiction, and with literary and experimental elements. The plot involves the invention of a sophisticated psycho-medical technology, the Mappa Mundi of the title: a treatment which can both map and redraw the human brain in significant ways. The characters are both sympathetic and flawed: Natalie Armstrong is the psychologist with her own history of mental illness; Dan ... is her flamboyant but insecure gay flatmate and colleague; Jude Westhorpe is a half-Cheyenne FBI agent investigating an attack on his sister's reservation; Mary Delaney is another US government agent, desperately ambitious and with a sinister agenda of her own. R. gives us no infallible, confident, action heroes, no unambiguous 'good guys' nor irredeemable 'bad guys'.

The backgrounds to these characters are well-sketched: we see their personalities through anecdotes in their lives, sometimes in their own words (so we see their own take, and sometimes an unreliably narrated history will tell more about a character's psychological state than cold facts would). Equally convincingly and elegantly handled is the science and technology in this very-near-future setting: the science in this world is already futuristic, with advances in nanotechnology and neurosurgery having reached impressive—but reasonable—levels. Even in this world Mappa Mundi is an astonishing invention. Natalie and her colleagues (including her father Professor Armstrong) intended for the brain-writing technology to be used to treat people with mental illness or neurological injury, but their transatlantic sponsors and governments have other ideas. In the course of the book, Natalie sees her creation misused for violence, for espionage, and most terrifyingly for mind control. And behind all this, a mysterious Russian genius has plans to use Mappa Mundi to change the face of all society itself.

The literary style of this work is not pretentious, but it feels somewhat self-conscious; in places there is a slight artificiality, as we see R. growing into her use of language and experimental styles. The book begins, for example, with a series of six 'legends', introducing some of the main characters into the action. These introductions work well in themselves, and are in a skilful mix of voices, styles and genres; but when three of the characters then meet within the space of a couple of pages into the main narrative, the reader is left slightly off-balance and feeling almost as though this is an unfeasible coincidence. It should be stressed, however, that this does not affect the flow of the book as a whole, and the writing is in the main subtle and masterful.

Without giving too much of the plot away, the short 'Epilogue' to this book was difficult to swallow. This reviewer had trouble understanding the relationship of this section to the rest of the story, or to narrative reality, or even whether it was meant to be an utopic or a dystopic vision. This ambiguity is arguably a feature, not a bug. But the pages kept turning to the very last page. If any recent work of speculative fiction deserves to break the boundaries of genre fandom and win mainstream accolade, this is it.

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