Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Justina Robson: Mappa Mundi (2001)

Published: Pan (2002)

After an odd, disjointed start before the plot proper gets going - fifty pages describing formative events in the lives of those to become major characters - Mappa Mundi settles down into familiar near future techno-thriller territory, rather like (say) Neal Stephenson's Zodiac. The NervePath projec is a psychological equivalent to the Human Genome Project: mapping out how the mind and brain structure relate to one another. Natalie Armstrong is interested in the obvious spinoff: software that can alter brain state, something she sees as a major tool in psychiatric treatment (she works in a clinic in York). But she is strangely unable to get funding for her Mappa Mundi project, and a series of bizarre crimes in the US suggests that someone else with a more sinister agenda may already be ahead of her.

The plot proceeds predictably enough - are the people who used the software to attack the village in the Native American reservation really good guys desperate to make it politically impossible for the work on the software as a weapon to continue? who can be trusted? Then, just before the halfway point, there is a huge surprise, the rug being pulled out from under the feet of the complacent reader who thinks that they have read it all before. The western rationalist approach to the mind expected in a hard(ish) science fiction novel is suddenly interrupted by ideas from Eastern religions: the patient who is a test subject for Armstrong's work is accidentally enlightened, and leaves the physical plane, or at least, this is what appears to happen. Such an event would be humorous if Robson had not spent so long persuading the reader that Mappa Mundi is a serious novel. From this point onwards, the novel picks up a gear, and it becomes much less predictable.

Mind altering viruses, akin to the scourges of today's computers, are increasingly common in science fiction. I have written about Amusica, from Alastair Reynolds' Century Rain, only recently. It's a frightening idea, that we might be as malleable as a zombie PC is in the hands of today's virus writers.

The difficulties with producing this kind of virus are many: it is quite some way beyond today's knowledge (unless one starts to entertain paranoid notions that of course "they" would want us to think that). It is possible to obtain access to parts of the mind from outside, for hypnotism clearly does just that. But hypnotism, psychoactive drugs and brainwashing do not provide the delicacy of control and the permanent re-conditioning that is required by science fiction writers. They eyes, closely connected to the human brain (indeed, I have read that some scientists consider them and the optical nerve essentially part of the brain) and a principal means by which we, as a species, obtain information about the world, are the obvious means to use to infiltrate commands and programs into the mind (rather in the way that psychedelic patterns were used in sixties TV such as The Avengers). The defences, the biological equivalents to firewalls and virus checkers, seem to be quite weak, as we already have these methods of influencing the mind through the optical system. Breaching the defences, though, is only the first stage.

In order to make it possible to carry out the sort of reprogramming described in Mappa Mundi, the way that the human mind handles abstract concepts needs to be understood in detail. It is not even clear that concepts such as patriotism are implemented in the same way in the brains of different people - after all, patriotism is closely connected to whatever it is you are patriotic about, and even testing individuals to see how such a concept is structured would be hard (how would you stimulate the brains of people from different cultures so that you could scan brain activity for patriotism?). Abstract concepts are quite vague, and hard to pin down; there is a good reason why we don't program computers to be loyal, or jealous even though we know precisely how a computer should work. (Simulating loyalty or jealousy is a slightly different idea.) On the other hand, this feeling that the theory that would underlie the software described in this novel is infeasible doesn't meant that it will never be correctly formulated: after all, a medieval theologian would have considered a single law of gravity describing the motions of the planets to be unlikely, given the belief that an individual angel was responsible for the movement of each one.

Whether or not the vision of the mind control software painted by science fiction is likely, it is a disturbing one. Scenarios like warring factions of zombies (John Barnes' Kaleidoscope Century), the musical deprivation of Alastair Reynolds' Century Rain, or Robson's government sponsored suppression of discontent are in no way comforting, pleasant pictures of the future. And yet some people think that science fiction is all about escapism!

Mappa Mundi would be thought provoking as a technological thriller even without the wonderful twists. Not a cheerful read, however, by any stretch of the imagination.

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