Science Fiction Book Review


(2004) Tricia Sullivan, Orbit, 10.99, pbk, 355pp, ISBN 1-841-49312-0

This is Tricia Sullivan's fourth novel since moving to the UK in 1995. Her third, Dreaming in Smoke, won the Arthur C Clarke Award. In this book there are two intertwined storylines; one a virtual reality (effectively) set in a Mall, which helps an experimental subject, from the 'real world' plotline, to examine his internal state(s). It is also a visualisation tool for the scientist performing the experiment, and an offshoot of the application of information technology that sees people using a kind of virtual sensurround as their machine interface. In brief, as far as I can understand it, there has been a number of so-called Y-plagues which have killed nearly all the males in society and caused the rest to be held (as pampered breeding stock) in plague-free citadels. Women can breed through parthenogenesis, but only at great expense. The book is unclear as to whether some genetic manipulation of gametes is taking place using pig DNA (presumably resistant to the Y-plagues). The experimental subject is a cloned male (or male expression of a cloned female) who has been infested with a virus, presumably to make him Y-plague resistant though, like so much in this book, that isn't exactly clear. The virtual world of the Mall/Maul follows the fortunes of a female gang member in a roughly contemporary, early 2000's, setting and is a playing out with characters of the cycle of the test virus.

The whole Maul part of the book, since you quickly realise that it is a virtual representation of a physical process, is completely unengaging. It starts with a female character masturbating with her gun, and that seems a pretty apt metaphore for what Sullivan is doing in this half of the novel, except that the gun is unloaded and the safety's on. In the 'real world' half things are not much better. By her own admission, in the acknowledgements, "the science in this book is pure fudge", which is a shame. The reason I say that is not because I believe that, these days, SF should necessarily take care over the science (though I do), but because the science is so weak and ill-thought out that it constantly undermines the world Sullivan has created, up to and including the scene where the scientist gives a captive (naturally immune) male a blow-job, spits the cum into a beer bottle and shoves it up her own twat in a bid to conceive a child. The fact is that the 'world' of the book is never convincing and so the suspension of disbelief becomes a chore. And it gets worse, as we're supposed to believe that the virus has mutated into a 'consciousness plague' that allows one to be completely aware of one's internal state on a cellular level (as though that would be somehow useful).

Now Sullivan is, as stated, a Clarke Award winner and she also receives much praise from various media - though I'm not sure in this case if the quotes from Time Out, The Times, SFX and Locus on the cover actually refer to this book or a previous offering - but I just can't see what, if anything, is so good about this book. It is confused, ill-conceived and not thought through and (and perhaps this is deliberate) the 'real world' sections seem more cartoony and illogical than the 'virtual' sections. It is implied, again in the acknowledgements, that this book took several years to write (or at least sell) and that Sullivan herself experienced "difficult personal circumstances" during its writing. It shows. Someone should have been kind enough to reject this book until it was written properly. I can't recommend it.

Tony Chester

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