Spotlight on SciFi and Fantasy: Mind Over Ship

Title: Mind Over Ship

Author: David Marusek

January 2008

A Tor Book, Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 175 Fifth Avenue, NY, NY, 10010

ISBN-13: 978-0-7653-1749-0

ISBN-10: 0-7653-1749-4

Our Bright, bright horrible future

Eleanor Starke was likely murdered. Returning to earth from a meeting about the Garden Earth Project (a colonization effort that will see the have-nots sent sleeping into the void with their coma-longings for habitable planets), a probable sabotage  caused her yacht to fracture in the atmosphere and deposit Ms. Starke, in her two-hundredth year, as retrievable residue at the foothills of the Andes. Her daughter Ellen was more fortunate. Ellen was benignly decapitated by her suit to receive the inheritance of a vat-grown body and her mother’s considerable fortune. Despite the schemes and ill-intentions of innumerable enemies, things are bad, but might get slightly less bad.

If you know nothing of Counting Heads, Murasek’s first novel and the predecessor to Mind Over Ship, then you should at least know of the likely murder of Eleanor Starke, future Methuselah, matron and savvy oligarch in a society where politics and business have merged under the aegis of people who are echo-chambers of synthetic intelligence and nepotism. Everyone else, the rest of us, just try to get by in a world where it’s pretty apparent that, well, things could get on just find without us, without you.

Mind Over Ship doesn’t tediously repeat the previous book (“…the Blecknick had ruled the spiral galaxy for cruel millennia when Captain Blair Campaina realized she needed their anti-fungal medication…”). The novel starts naturally and insinuates the background events and setting. If sci-fi publishers are going to keep demanding sequels from their writers, then talented authors are going to have to keep resolving issues of what info to provide and how to get it across in ways that do not completely trivialize the novel at hand.

One of Murasek’s successes is that he has created a world that is not only broadly and convincingly conceived, but that he does it with a light touch that unusual among sf writers.

Strong works of science fiction often embrace and embody a political sensibility as much as a technological one. They show the connections of the way we run our lives and the stuff we use to run it. Murasek surround his characters with a plethora of

likely and ingenious inventions without seeming awkward or heavy-handed. The technology is not only plausible, but it fits necessarily with the type of world the characters inhabit. And the world he’s created hangs together. There are a lot of ideas here-about how we’ll live; how we’ll still struggle for identity and relevance and how small most of us will be in a very determined and designed world-but there is a strong sense that Murasek has created a unified whole. The details are constant and clever, but they add up. And the man has a canny discretion, even with harrowing, unblinking details:

Although the Persuasion Channel provided its amateur interviewers triple anonymity, Oliver walked through the holospace searching for any inadvertent clues that might give his charter away to the authorities. The only agent in the tent was a generic household arbeitor. It was busy painting the soles of the boy’s bare feet with an organic solvent that cuased the skin to liquefy and slough off. The exposed nerve endings on the soles of his feet looked like the stubble of a white beard.

The boy was already crying and pleading, which made Oliver shake his head in wonder. The solvent didn’t actually hurt, and if the boy made this much fuss so soon, how would he hold up when the arbeitor broke out the hair dryer?

Murasek is wise enough to know that we do not need to see the torture, or the boy, again. But the book can also be quite absurdly funny. If you read only one work where a trollish clone mocks a character by buggering himself, make it this one. Murasek’s world is, for all its iniquity, a vital place. It’s busy. Things and events move quickly and he picks his details well.

The story involves many characters, Mary the clone (and evangeline, they’re good companions), Fred the clone (cop-types, loyal company men), Meewee the idealist, the bee with a plan and others who are caught in the turbulence caused by the death of Eleanor Starke and the regrowth of her daughter Ellen. Murasek manages to keep the multiple narrative branches moving and melding without losing coherence or movement. His future is one with very few, and somewhat murderous, winners and a mass of people caught in their wake. It’s not an usual story, but it’s unusually well-told. Anyone who has read his justly famous short story The Wedding Album knows that the man has a very humane imagination. He is able to convince us that the characters matter even as we see how little they matter to their world.

When approaching the end, you can tell that the entire story isn’t going to be resolved. The book is a bridge to another work, but it feels complete and ends satisfactorily (it doesn’t drop abruptly as if written by Neil Stephenson in a meth lab). Some books work as part of a series because there’s still more story to tell. This is one.

The man is good; the book is good. He’s the type of writer that you worry will get more praise than readers. Mind Over Ship is going to be seen as one of the best sf books of the year. Do yourself a favor, hell, do the genre a favor-buy it, read it, pass it on.

On a side note, sf readers have been clamoring for, well, decades for the most deserving authors in the genre to get the wider respect, and audience, they deserve. When writers like Atwood or McCarthy write sf and the books are both acclaimed and big money-makers, a lot of people in the field start waving their hands and gesturing to authors who were already there and doing that stuff. But sf publishers, by making the commonly-heard of demands for sequels and size constraints are effectively doing everything they can to kick the genre back to the kiddy pool. If the industry can’t embrace novels that are complete in themselves (which most classic books are), then it’s trivializing the hand that feeds it. “Look, it’s not that I don’t like Canticle, it’s just that it kills it own momentum by, well, satisfactorily ending. Can’t you butcher this baby a bit? Cliffhangerize it by 30%?)

[tags]scifi, literature, book review[/tags]

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