The Science Fiction of Gillian Bradshaw
Article by Eyal Moses
Note: while the Wrong Reflection is out of print in hardcover, Ace will be bringing out a Paperback Edition in September: Amazon.com - ed
Gillian Bradshaw, an established British author of historical novels, began in 2000 to diversify into science fiction. Her three science fiction novels have gotten very little publicity, and are almost unknown among science-fiction fans; the first (and best) of them - The Wrong Reflection - is already out of print. Her latest novel, The Somers Treatment, is unfortunately the weakest of the three. Still, I hope that by writing this review I can do my part in helping to get word out of this undiscovered science-fiction phenomenon.
I have for many years loved Bradshaw's historical novels, which I regard as the best of that genre. Each of her novels vividly evokes its historical era, based on meticulous historical research; and combines this with a strong, original and suspenseful plot and interesting, heroic and sharply drawn characters. Unlike many other historical novelists, Bradshaw never digresses into lengthy discussions of the period; all period exposition is unobtrusively integrated into the story. The historical period in a Bradshaw novel is never an arbitrary setting imposed on the story; it is always essential, with social conditions and historical persons and events of the period integral to the plot.
Bradshaw's best historical novels are The Beacon at Alexandria and The Sand-Reckoner. Fans of L. Sprague DeCamp's Lest Darkness Fall, or of David Drake's and Eric Flint's Belisarius series, will also find Bradshaw's The BearKeeper's Daughter especially interesting, as a historical novel taking place at the same period with some of the same historical characters.
Bradshaw has also published four historical fantasy novels: an Arthurian trilogy (Hawk of May, Kingdom of Summer and In Winter's Shadow) and The Wolf-Hunt, a were-wolf story set in 11th-century France. These four novels are also very much worth reading, though I did not find them nearly as strong as Bradshaw's straight historical fiction.
In her three science fiction novels, Bradshaw demonstrates the same ability for creating plot and characters. All three novels take place in near-future England, with no significant social or technological differences from the present day, and so these novels do not involve exposition of an unfamiliar period; but Bradshaw still demonstrates the same skills she used in her historical novels, this time in integrating her story with speculative scientific ideas.
The Wrong Reflection starts with what seems like a formulaic thriller opening. Sandra Murray rescues a stranger out of an automobile wreck; his identifications say his name is Paul Anderson and that he is an executive of the research and engineering firm Stellar Research; but when he wakes up in the hospital, he is suffering from amnesia, with no memory of who he is, except for the certainty that his name is not Paul Anderson and that he fears and distrusts Stellar Research. The story revolves around Sandra's and "not-Anderson"'s efforts to find clues to his identity. The scientific speculation in the novel is tightly integrated to the solution to the mystery, and so cannot be discussed without a spoiler, except to say that it is on a par with the speculations you would find in the best of hard-core science fiction. The developing romantic attraction between the two main characters, unlike the love-story subplots in so many novels that seem completely tacked on to the main plot, ends up being central to the story's resolution and well connected to the scientific speculations.
Dangerous Notes deals with the use of stem cells in brain therapy. The story's three central characters are a young musician who, as a child, suffered brain damage in an accident and was treated with stem-cell therapy, with the side-effect of enhancing her musical creativity, and causing her to occassionally hear music in her head; and two researchers who discover these effects which she has so far kept a secret, and have conflicting ideas about how to treat her. The scientific explanations of the neurology involved are interesting, plausible and unobstrusive, and integrated with the theme of the nature and importance of creativity. The plot is simpler than usual for Bradshaw, but she portrays the three characters and their motivations with her usual skill, and repeatedly challenges you as the reader to rethink your attitudes towards the characters and your assumptions about who you sympathise with.
The Somers Treatment is, in contrast, a serious disappointment, and is Bradshaw's weakest novel (of any type) to date. It returns to the subject of stem cell brain therapy. The story's main character, a British physician, is foster-mother to a Nepalese boy who has been deaf since birth and has consequently never learned any language. After his deafness is cured, he is subjected to an experimental treatment to develop the language centers in his brain so he can learn language. It turns out that spies and industrial spies are also interested in the treatment. The novel ends up being a mixture of a spy story, a love story and a story about the brain therapy, each of them totally predictable and none of them connected to the others in any interesting way.
Overall, Bradshaw is one of the top novelists writing today, in science fiction and in fiction in general. She has gotten the recognition she deserves among readers of historical fiction, but her science fiction is so far neglected, mostly because of the weak publicity given to her books. I would advise science fiction fans to skip The Somers Treatment, but to put The Wrong Reflection and Dangerous Notes near the top of your to-read list; and to give her historical fiction a try as well.