Fiction Reviews

Mind's Eye

(2005) Paul McAuley, Simon & Schuster, 12.99, hrdbk, i + 422 pp, ISBN 0-743-23887-7
(trd pbk edition forthcoming initially for outside of UK, ISBN 0-743-23888-5, price yet to be determined)

Paul McAuley has had a novel published virtually every year for the past decade. His early work (by my perception) has largely been in SF territory though a number have had aspects, all be they nascent, of thrillers. Recently he gave us White Devils which definitely had the feel of a thriller yet equally - with its genetically modified animals and even ecosystems - was clearly science fiction. Such SF-thriller hybrids have caused some to liken McAuley to Michael Crichton; a man who in science terms gets his science-SF interface right but for the wrong reasons. I enjoy Crichton's work but boy do I disagree where that man is coming from. So the likening of McAuley's work to that of Crichton's is for me a mixed message. McAuley I feel is a more honest writer in that he does not lay a science policy trip on anyone. (This reviewer has worked in science policy and lobbying for many years.) McAuley seems to let the reader make up his or her own mind as to any meaning his work may or may not have beyond that of entertainment. Though of course he is happy when he feels moved (as in the case of Mind's Eye) to point us to some background reading that stimulated the novel's development.

Likening McAuley to Crichton will probably continue, if not be enhanced, with Mind's Eye as it is clearly a step closer to being an out-and-out thriller than White Devils. Mind's Eye is decidedly what they call a techno-thriller.

Plot.   In the prelude the protagonist, Alfie Flowers, as a child rummages through his journalist-photographer father's papers and sees a drawing. It is a pattern that effectively gives him an epileptic fit. His father dies and strange people come and remove many of his papers gathered over the years...

Jump to the present day (or very near future) and Alfie is following in his father's footsteps as a journalistic photographer when he spies some graffiti on a London wall that sparks in him a weak reaction similar to that he had as a child on seeing the epileptic-inducing pattern. Alfie decides to track down the graffiti 'artist', a Middle-Eastern youth known as Morph. However others (note the plural) have seen Morph's wall doodles and are also after him. Alfie enlists the help of a journalist friend Toby, whose copy Alfie's pictures often illustrate, and together they track down Morph. In the course of this they find out that Morph has a connection with Alfie's father and a discovery he and colleagues made decades ago in the Middle East. Morph's work seems to stimulate parts of the brain and cause emotions: more so in Alfie's case as he has already been sensitised. Clearly the use of abstract visual graphics to stimulate 'thinking' has commercial and even political consequences should it be that Morph's artistic abilities can be harnessed and channelled. The question is who else has spotted Morph's pictures and has anyone got the knowledge and made the connection with Alfie's father's work? The race is then on, and it's a race that in the book's second half takes them to the Middle East.

Aside from being more of a techno-thriller than SF (though there is a nugget of SF at its heart) Mind's Eye has a noir-ish feel to it. A bit like a modern day Harry Palmer (there are Ipcress File resonances), though the Government forces in this are more up-market in-keeping with today's post-yuppie culture, while the journalists, like Palmer, are less polished with a more happy-go-lucky attitude to life.

I enjoyed Mind's Eye though I have to confess it probably would not be my first choice of read as I prefer to have a good dollop of SF in my fiction, even if it is lightly whisked in with other ingredients. However Mind's Eye is bound to have broad appeal for, not only is it well written with good characters (McAuley is more than a competent writer), the book will be of interest to both SF readers who also enjoy thrillers as well as outright thriller readers who would never otherwise pick up a work of SF, and additionally I suspect those who consider themselves more 'literary': such is the author's way with words and that the story relates to a number of today's international political concerns which some might say makes it 'relevant' or at least seem to be.   It will sell.   Yes, McAuley may be likened to Crichton, but I still maintain that this is unfair especially post-1990s. McAuley's arguably better than that.

Jonathan Cowie

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