Emma Geen, The Many Selves of Katherine North

Geen 1This novel had been recommended to me by a Twitter friend a year ago, in terms that made me think that it must be a sf classic, a great sf novel by a British woman that I had unaccountably missed. He too may have got the dates wrong, because this is a 2017 novel by a young writer (from my part of the world, I think), yet it is still a truly excellent novel. I’m not sure if it’s going to become a classic; but it covers the right bases: originality, readability, world-building, speaking to the human condition.

It’s a galloping page-turner as well, and possibly aimed at the older end of the YA market, but this only occurred to me once I’d finished. There’s no graphic anything, since Geen lets the reader’s imagination work on its own. There’s one mild sex scene, albeit a highly unusual one, but it’s the first one for that character. She, a human, has sex with a whale.

Katherine (Kit) North is a phenomenaut, transferring her mind into avatar animals, called Ressys, that are 3D printed in the lab, to research animal environments and behaviour. ShenCorp, the corporation for whom she works, is about to start trials on a more ambitious use of the Ressys, and because Kit is the most experienced phenomenaut that they’ve got, she is selected to trial the new Ressys. And she doesn’t like it at all.

Geen 2The phenomenauts are all children, because Ressy transference works best with strong brain plasticity, and the brain gets less adaptable in adulthood. Geen skips smartly past the potentially weakest part of the plot, that parents, families, society in general, will allow children to effectively live out their lives as foxes, eagles, dolphins, spiders, and regress in human behavioural norms. In this alt future society (not very future), the phenomenauts just go to work like everyone else. Their work, and their own community, are so compellingly written that I didn’t start thinking logically about child labour until I’d finished the book.

They have minders, called neuroengineers, who travel with them, in the virtual sense, while they’re inhabiting their avatars, and guide them out of dangerous situations. Buckley is Kit’s neuroengineer, her surrogate elder brother, her experienced fellow researcher, her most trusted friend, her base and solid ground. So when he embraces the new Ressy experiment, Kit is on her own with her doubts, fears and reservations.

The Many Selves of Katherine North is about trust, independence and choosing your own path. It is also about a superbly-imagined world of avatar transference and the ethics of child labour, children’s developmental patterns, extraordinarily detailed imaginings of animal behaviour and, yes, a little bit of whale sex. I particularly enjoyed it for its Bristol setting: more non-London urban settings, please! Get this for your grumpy adolescent for Christmas, and anyone else who wants to live in multiple worlds.

 

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