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The original Mappa Mundi from which this novel borrows its title, is a 13th century map of the world shaped as much by spiritual values as by the known geographic attributes of the times. More historic information on this magnificent artifact can be obtained here. Author Robson's Mappa Mundi is thought-altering software made possible by post-present day breakthroughs in nanotechnology which has created a serviceable map of the human mind. While the heroine—psychologist Natalie Armstrong—hopes her work with it will eliminate all mental illness, other factions see it as a way of controlling populations either from themselves or imagined enemies. The arch-villain(1) Mikhail Guskov wants to inoculate the world with his fervent dogma called Free State to make humanity “a perfectible race” (Pyr, ISBN 1591024919, c.2001, p.458). Covert government agencies are pushing for a means “to remove the enemies of the United States by simply reinventing them as citizens” (p.326). Any way you ingest it, this mind-controlling program is destined to be “an emotional nuke” (p.413) on the unsuspecting general population.
Western civilization has always stocked its worth on technology. Great ages of the past are named after advancements in tools and/or armaments. The Age of Aquarius wanes under history's procedural eye when focused on the 20th century's latter half with its hard science breakthroughs like space travel and the Human Genome Project, plus the phenomenal influence of information systems re-defining our world into data bytes and persuasive icons. The Atomic Age. The Space Age. The Age of the Computer. We are all more products of the Age of Discovery than the Age of Reason.
“Technology demands a response” (p.445), as Natalie puts it, and all of the characters in Mappa Mundi assume complaisance to this scientific dictum. It's a continuous hamster wheel never exited unless thrown, never challenged but adjudicated for acceleration. It carries with it a moral recklessness whining the excuse-me mantra of “if I don't use it, somebody else will”. This is the resignation of a society grown skittish then sullen from black hat hackers armed with worms and viruses, terrorists using a boarding pass as a weapon, Saddam's yellowcake uranium either real or—worse yet—a peddling point. And yes, even fucking pop-ups. The novel very effectively identifies this cumulative desperation as the malicious Siamese twin of scientific innovation, yet it displays enough discernment to underscore that humanity cannot—must not—be protected from itself.
This is a novel of big ideas enthusiastically prepared but perplexing in execution. The WhatIf? seems to overwhelm the plot, setting, characters, and style of the work. Using the ever-popular ensemble technique, Ms. Robson tells her story by threading her characters both in and out of each other, as themes advance and viewpoints unfold. This leads to fragmentation and detachment, as the reader instinctively attaches to the characters they prefer, which, at least through the murky and confusing first half of the novel, is packleader Natalie Armstrong with FBI agent Jude Westhorpe sniffing closely behind. In fact, “Legends”—the opening section of the novel—is antenatal vignettes of the 6 persons-of-importance. These early behavioral tuning forks become helpful references further into the tossed salad action, especially when it starts tasting like an espionage thriller. The final half of the novel is a dialogue of ethical positions, scientific responsibility, and societal speculation, which is surprisingly more interesting than either the selfish or altruistic motivations binding the emotional attachments that preceded it. The epilogue—titled “Update”— is a quick, anonymous slice of post-Selfware thinking confined to autocratic consumerism. As now, the important issues are swatted away like pesky mosquitoes by news pilot filters, and superseded by product indulgences made paramount from vociferous advertising lures.
Enough has been said (Agony Column review, Strange Horizons review, SFsite.com review) about Ms. Robson's inability to convincingly portray America's polity as regards to SOP. Personally, it was the least offensive of critical ingredients. Instead, Ms. Robson deserves kudos for not falling to the clichés of characterization (my arch-villain dig earlier was meant to be as spoofy as the films they inhabit) or the corrugated cardboard of big-bang plot points that would trivialize her concerns. On the other hand, there is a substrative whiff of neophytism to the novel. It's as if the author is constantly struggling with what facts, actions, intentions, and consequences to press into the print, or trust the reader to discover on their own.
But this is a distinguished mind polishing up its tools. It imagines from the ‘60s movement labeled Speculative Fiction, and the edificial difficulties with Mappa Mundi should in no way tarnish any future, fictional ponderances from this talented writer.
1) He wants to curtail others' “inevitable development of centralized control methods” (p.310) by imposing his own value system upon all people, however benevolent and remedial that system is conceived to be; therefore, he stands—albeit indignantly deluded—in the usual suspects' lineup alongside Blofeld, Dr. Evil, and Ming the Merciless.