Monday, June 29, 2020

Mind Seed review

This review originally appeared back in Interzone 272.

Mind Seed
Ed. David Gullen and Gary Couzens
T Party Books

Nine stories, mostly originals, by members of London writers’ group the T Party. The anthology is in memory of Denni Schnapp, who died in 2013. An introduction by Denni’s husband John Howroyd tells us a bit about her life. The last story, “Mind Seed,” is her own.

Perhaps there are two kinds of tale of possession. One kind is all about craving a uniform community. It’s about fear of interlopers, fear that others are secretly fundamentally different to you. Helen Callaghan’s “Sex and the Single Hive Mind” is closer to the second kind. It’s about craving plurality – desiring to become, under the rubric of compassion, fundamentally different from yourself. (Even if you don’t become, as Callaghan’s protagonist(s) puts it, “nice people”). It’s an engaging, agile opener, sparkling with sleaze rather than polish.

Fox McGeever’s “Evolution” is post-apocalyptic survivalism pared down for parable-esque force. The protagonist Cara is all alone, save some invasive xenomorphs and a wombful of weird son. The indistinct mechanisms of apocalypse – silver ships and white fire – convey an aura of rapture and end-times. Like any parable worth its salt (of the earth), “Evolution” accommodates many interpretations. It could just be about the remorse of isolated young parents, trying to live up to their received ideas about what Nature intends (e.g. breastfeeding). It could be about human’s eternal capacity to adapt, and yet also to evolve new chauvinisms, new borders (“antibodies” (p.35)). In one aching image, Cara sleeps beside her husband’s body, waking with one hand on her bump and the other on his chest: this story could be about the ethics of creating new humans, when there is no world left to nourish them. Rosanne Rabinowitz’s “Living in the Vertical World” is pieced together from real ingredients of that crumbling world: maybe Bosco Verticale in Porta Nuova, Milan (or more speculatively, Dickson Despommier’s “skyscraper-as-spaceship” research and advocacy) plus a crumb of Occupy, a crumb of Maker hipsterdom, a crumb of malevolent Monsanto IP litiginousness. It finishes on a “what-would-you-do?” and hints at the relationship between social bonds and foundational acts of violence.

So far I make Mind Seed sound very serious. But it’s also great fun. Stasis pods! Ship AI! Rovers! Thrust! Identities are rickety and unsound in “Sex and the Single Hive Mind,” and boundaries between individuals are unusually permeable. So there’s a small serendipity at the frontier between Callaghan’s story and McGeever’s “Evolution”: a character called Mark appears in each story, and for a moment, they feel like they are one overlapping, overspilling person. Something similar – only it’s deliberate – occurs in the most elegant moment of Ian Whates’s “Darkchild.” With the line “Darkchild sat alone” (p. 71), identities dovetail and meld. And here’s a spoiler: Darkchild is the prisoner of a dread trinket, a sort of Cthulhic desk ornament timewaster. You wonder: is the puzzle is solvable? “Water dripping somewhere” (p.61) is Darkchild’s only stimulus, obviously reminiscent of so-called Chinese Water Torture. A drip also suggests chaos theory: the deterministic but unpredictable coalescence and collapse of liquid at the lip of a tap. Obviously to escape, Darkchild must solve this non-linear function: but how to input her answer? Via varying the rhythm of her foetal-pose back-and-forth rocking of course! I bet your average Interzone reader would be out of there in a jiffy.

Deborah Walker’s myth-like “The Three Brother Cities” doesn’t give us a critique of the creeping surveillance requirements or algorithmic hubris of the contemporary smart city, so much as the sublime thrill of cosplaying Cair Paravel or Gormenghast or Ambergris (. . . in space!). If my eyebrows weren’t zotzed by all that rocket thrust, I might cock one at the hokey gender dynamics of Owton & Couzens’s pleasantly mercurial, Golden Age-ish “Rockhopper.”Anybody stasis pod stowaways who awaken in the Twenty-Third Century, don’t fret! – it’s still 100% fine to slip into something more feminine and melt into a nearby burly chest. But listen, if you thought “Rockhopper” was the biggest jolt of gee-whizz space opera retro you’re likely to guzzle all year, that’s because you haven’t yet read Markus Wolfson’s “Alien Invaders.” Wolfson’s “Alien Invaders” is, for starters, entitled “Alien Invaders,” and it’s a heady cocktail of unload-my-space-pistol-right-in-your-tentacles capers, pulpier than a pineapple, with a twisty straw of what-if-the-true-monsters-are-dot-dot-dot-us?

Perhaps it’s the relatively cosy contributor-base that gives this anthology such bracing variety – even a genuinely unpredictable variety of varieties. There are patterns however. There’s a lot of First Contact – or at least Still-In-That-Awkward-Stage-Of-Getting-To-Know-You Contact. There’s fruitfulness, verdant abundance. No story is explicitly elegaic, but many – and above all, Schnapp’s own “Mind Seed” – take acceptance for their theme. With humour, bluntness, and effervescence, “Mind Seed” tells the tale of Leia’s cancer treatment by full brain emulation (“A toddler aged thirty-two and a half [...] I spun Leia in my arms”), and of her sister Zif’s transition from luddite-ish anti-cyborg hold-out (“stone ager” (p. 166)) to cyborg and, ultimately, to intrastellar voyager.

Several stories unite an immoderate intensity of desolation with an equal intensity of hopefulness. Nina Allan’s “Bird Songs at Eventide” is one gorgeously honed example. Humanity manifests in a detached, almost hardboiled manner. Whimsical associative shifts are deployed with clinical precision. The prickliness of the prosody, and the sumptuousness of sense-data, are self-consiously inadequate compensation for a loss without any clear boundaries: loss of a lover’s love, of a planet, of something. Meanwhile, the living cosmos teems.

Profits from the anthology go to Next Generation Nepal, an anti-child-trafficking charity supported by Denni Schnapp.

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