The village where I grew up is tiny even by the usual standards of English country villages: thirty houses; a hundred residents; no shop; no pub. And yet it’s had its fair share of literary energy. Legend has it that Wilkie Collins started writing The Moonstone at the Manor House; Dick King-Smith used to live down the other lane; and now, to my surprise and delight, I see that one of my former neighbours has also published a novel. I wouldn’t say that I ever knew Emma Geen (it feels weird to refer to her solely by surname as I usually do with authors), but I still approached this book with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. And it was all rewarded. Without a shadow of partiality, I can say that this is an assured and accomplished debut: tight, edgy and thoroughly gripping; a sophisticated blend of thriller and troublingly plausible sci-fi.
In the mid-21st century, scientific research has opened up new possibilities for the study of zoology. The discipline of phenomenautism allows a human consciousness to be projected into a lab-grown animal body, which is then released into the wild. Social hierarchies, communication and the functioning of the ecosystem can be monitored in this way. ShenCorp is a leader in its field, based at the University of Bristol and producing a greater quantity of research than any of its competitors. It differs in one other important way as well. Rival companies use adult phenomenauts, who are less adaptable and suffer harsher side-effects during and after ‘jumps’; but ShenCorp uses teenagers, sometimes as young as twelve, whose plasticity allows them greater flexibility and to more easily inhabit the skins of different creatures.
Katherine North, known as Kit, has been working for ShenCorp for seven years and is now nineteen. Mammals; fish; birds; invertebrates; she’s done them all. But her particular speciality is mammals. At present, she’s involved in a fox study, spending weeks at a time in jump so that she can trace territories and assess the movements of the fox population; but, when tragedy strikes, Kit finds that the company has other plans for her. Plans which, as Kit learns more about them, begin to sound as if they transgress the ethical foundations of phenomenautism itself. In a parallel storyline in the ‘present’, we find Kit on the run, disorientated and desperate, knowing only that ShenCorp will do anything they can to catch her… and that she can no longer trust anyone… perhaps not even herself.
What works so well about the book – apart from that dual storyline, which keeps the tension high – is that the science feels so plausible and also so possible. Emma’s vision of sci-fi is one closely linked to our own world, where certain huge steps have been made, but for the most part life remains absolutely recognisable. And, despite the technology, it’s just as much a character piece, focusing on Kit’s troubled interactions with the world around her. She’s a captivating character and her traits hint at the psychological impact of inhabiting another skin: she has a sharp, half-feral wariness, and Emma writes in a very convincing way about the ‘hangover’ effects of spending time as a different species. The book is centred on her friendship with her dedicated ‘neuro’ Buckley, whose job it is to keep her safe in jump, and also touches on Kit’s struggle to deal with her mother’s debilitating illness, which makes the ‘real’ world of family and warmth and safety seem ever more remote to her.
I was struck by two thematic strands. First, the constraints of the body, which we see through Kit’s discomfort on returning to human form. The ‘come home’ process straitjackets her fluid mind which, until so recently, was fashioned to fit flippers or to take advantage of dazzling extra senses. Complementing this is the moving depiction of Kit’s mother growing steadily trapped by her own failing physicality. The book clearly isn’t autobiographical but, as Emma’s mother suffered a similar illness, it’s hard not to see an element of personal experience creeping in at times. Second, there’s the astonishing power of the mind, which can shape itself into different forms, but still sometimes betrays us when we need it most. For me, one of the most interesting questions in the book (looking back at it) is to what extent Kit is a reliable narrator.
I’d definitely recommend this to those who enjoy having their minds stretched: if you’re not a big reader of sci-fi, don’t be put off, because quite honestly this is more like speculative fiction; and it’s written with remarkable poise. Let me be honest: I started reading it out of curiosity, to see what talent my native earth had thrown up, but I ended it entirely under the spell of Emma’s literary flair. I’ll be waiting eagerly for her second book, not because I once lived a few houses away from her, but because she genuinely is a very gifted author and I can’t wait to see what she creates next. You can find out more about Emma here on her website.