#Book Review: The Many Selves of Katherine North – Emma Geen

9781408858431This book has such an original concept, so well executed, that I can’t believe I haven’t heard more hype about it. In a bleak near future, Katherine ‘Kit’ North is a nineteen-year-old woman who has been working for seven years as a phenomenaut. Her role is to project her consciousness into the bodies of lab grown animals to study creatures in their natural settings, and the ‘plasticity’ of brain required to do this usually only exists for a short time in young teenagers. When we first meet Kit, she is a fox, and throughout the book we experience several glorious sections of total immersion in another environment as Kit embodies creatures from whales to snakes. However, Kit has begun to have doubts about the ethics of her company, and embarks on a dangerous investigation in the ‘real’ world.

At the moment of projecting consciousness into another creature, phenomenauts experience ‘Sperlman’s Shock’ – a painful sensory overload and panic as they adjust to their new forms. One of the best elements of the book is the bleeding of the rich life of any other being to the paucity of reality for humans “where Sperlman’s Shock is temporary torture, Come Home is insidious chronic doubt”. Kit’s identity crises readjusting to the human world will resonate with anyone who struggles to feel at home where they are supposed to belong.

“I weave through the morning commute. The humans here always strike me as improbably perpendicular, every chin thrust out with the confidence of a silverback. What is it that gives them such assurance? As if they’re all alphas. A suited man jostles past and I bare my teeth at his glare. This is what the city reduces you to – meat, meat that’s in the way”.

The Many Selves of Katherine North is more of a psychological book than it is purely science fiction, but the best speculative fiction is always more than the setting. This is a skilful examination of empathy and the capacity of the written word (and perhaps ultimately technology) for embodied simulation. As Kit’s perception of the world begins to fragment, the narrative of course becomes more disjointed and paranoid – but in a completely convincing way. This book deserves to be more widely read, and I look forward to more from Emma Geen.

The Many Selves of Katherine North is published by Bloomsbury Circus. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.



Edge of Heaven – Book Review

edge-of-heaven-220x330Edge of Heaven, an urban dystopia by debut novelist RB Kelly, is the first science fiction novel published by Liberties Press. It also won the Irish Writer Centre’s Novel Fair competition – so it’s safe to say I was expecting big things from it. Set in 2119 in Creo Basse – a bi-level city with over 100 million inhabitants in the dustbowl of what remains of western France – at a time when a deadly man-made plague is beginning to cut its way through rich and poor alike, there are shades of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? here. Riots are common place, and an a-naut (human/machine hybrid) uprising is underway.  Against this backdrop Danae Grant, mourning the loss of her father and facing eviction, meets Boston Turrow, who is struggling to take care of his younger siblings. The intensity of their connection is the only thing more shocking than Boston getting sick… and Danae revealing she has been keeping a monumental secret.

The true test of science fiction writing is the capacity to create authentic worlds, and Creo Basse is a character in its own right – a living, vital, brutal character with an organic dynamism that drives the plot. This city of ultra-high rise buildings and artificial circadian rhythms is dying, and the characters of Edge of Heaven are caught in its death throes. It’s perhaps no surprise that a Belfast native is so capable of describing life in a split city. The relationship of the leads, playing out against the backdrop Creo Basse’s own troubles, is more grounded and natural than what we often find in science fiction. I genuinely liked Danae and Boston, and the emotional connection Kelly creates with these characters is one of the strengths of this novel. The multifaceted issues the city faces are reflective of real world complexity – environmental, financial, and societal collapse occur simultaneously and magnify each other as they do so. Additional realism is injected into the text through ‘excerpts’ from newspapers and academic texts that give background historical context to events. This is not detached and theoretical speculative world building, and it is the better novel for it.

That said – it is a bit of an old fashioned sci-fi doorstopper. As dystopias have come back into the limelight in the last decade, they have become shorter, snappier (more simple?) and almost always geared towards the young adult market. The scope and pace of Kelly’s novel might be off-putting to anyone who does not usually read science fiction for this reason – think along the lines of Dune, not The Hunger Games. It does takes time for the plot to crank into gear – so if you are looking for a brief read this is not the one for you. However, if you like clever, nuanced speculative fiction – particularly if you enjoy JG Ballard, Philip K. Dick or Iain M. Banks – this is a striking novel that is well worth your time. RB Kelly is an exciting new voice in speculative fiction, and it is no mystery why Liberties Press moved out of their usual genre zone to champion her debut.

Edge of Heaven is available in all good bookstores now. I received a copy of this book from the publisher in return for an honest review.