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Mappa Mundi by Justina Robson
Review by John Berlyne
Pyr Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 1591024919
Date: 05 September, 2006 List Price $15.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

I didn't manage to catch Justina Robson's debut novel Silver Screen when it came out a year or two ago, but I was certainly aware of it. I remember clearly the buzz going round about this new British genre novelist making her name an impossible one to ignore. Silver Screen scooped the 1999 BSFA award for best novel, as well as being short listed for the 2000 Arthur C. Clarke, and Robson took further honors when she was awarded the first ever Writer's Bursary Award. The direct result of the Amazon grant, the wonderfully titled Mappa Mundi, has just been published in the UK by Macmillan and it is a thought provoking and intriguing work that confirms Robson's place as a major player in the current pool of British SF talent.

Early on in this near future cyber thriller, Robson establishes the basic premise of her plot though she never really moves beyond it. "Mappa Mundi", the name of a technology that can scan and map the living human brain, has suddenly become an extremely important part of a military mind control project. The scientist responsible sees her work being adapted by certain people and in certain ways that do not appeal to her. She gets a clearer picture of what is going on when she is approached by an FBI agent who following an apparently unrelated case, learns that the military are already testing Mappa Mundi and in spite of the risks of the investigation treading on the toes of national security, the two of them attempt to fathom exactly what is going on.

The concept of mind control, and the technology that would allow it, is ground well covered in genre fiction. Robson however, chooses to set her novel at a time when such technology is being developed and tested. It is a interesting premise and Robson uses it well, examining carefully the benefits and inherent dangers that such technology would bring to mankind. Begging the author's forgiveness, comparisons to the X Files are almost unavoidable - whether this influence comes from the show's influence on Justina Robson or upon myself, I couldn't say, but the shadow cast by Chris Carter's monster hit is impossible to ignore in Mappa Mundi; dangerous technology; shadowy government/military conspiracies; a maverick FBI agent not afraid to bend the rules (and whose relationship with his sister is an integral plot point); a cute and extremely intelligent female scientists with red hair - you get the picture! But unlike the TV show, Mappa Mundi is by no means low brow mass appeal entertainment and if I have painted myself into a corner with the comparison, I qualify it by stating very clearly that Mappa Mundi is very much a thinking man's X File - with (thankfully) no alien abductions!

Robson has a rich and sophisticated narrative style and excels in the parts of the book that transmit the thoughts of her characters. But it is in this very strength that I am able to identify where the book doesn't work for me. It remains almost entirely cerebral throughout. The well thought out arguments and complex conspiratorial webs are solid but engage only the reader's head and rarely, if ever, their heart. Robson conveys what her character's think well enough, often what they think about what they're feeling, but the feelings themselves seem rarely to be "earthed". This cerebral ambiance within Mappa Mundi causes it to become very slow and ponderous at times - only sporadically do events take place that actually move the story on. The rest of the time, the reader must try and fathom a path through the vacuum of pseudo-scientific techno-talk and, impressive though it is, it palls after a while.

The main concept explored by Robson is certainly intriguing though. She examines the potential applications for this technology - it could, for instance, entirely eliminate racism. In one particular passage (that in light of recent events is extremely chilling,) she writes that it might be " ... possible for a person to remain essentially 'themselves' whilst shifting the core of their identities to a sufficient extent that an Afghani Muslim could experience them[selves] as a part of the United States' diaspora, loyal to the flag, espousing democracy, even tolerating libertarians on the same street because of the stars and stripes flying overhead." The idea of such a weapon, in the hands of any side in a conflict is mind boggling. The perfect anti-terrorist weapon? Or the perfect weapon for terrorists?

If anything, with Mappa Mundi Robson has given me the perfect reviewer's headache. As a novel of ideas, it is superb - chock full of brilliant concepts and inventions,and brimming with conspiracies and deceits galore. Indeed, there are times when it reads like the perfect "nanotechnology in mind control science" text book - but I don't think that is what was intended. As a story about people, about how character effect and are effected by the situations they find themselves in, it is far less successful. There is much to admire in Mappa Mundi, but I found that in the end I admired it a lot more than I enjoyed it.

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