In Mappa Mundi, the latest science ficiton novel by British writer Justina Robson to be published in the U.S., the author offers an engaging pyrotechnic slice of a near future in which computer software for humans is the next big research front.
Robson begins with six short legends, tantalizing childhood stories of the main characters with subtle hints of the action to come. At the center of the story is Natalie Armstrong, a psychologist, computer scientist and daughter of one of the most famous men in computing. All her life she has fought for control of herself, her world and her future. Natalie's tenuous link to reality broke when her mother died and she spent a couple of years in a mental facility. She has often felt that she is fighting her father and now suspects they are working on different aspects of the same brain mapping project, Mappa Mundi. Natalie slowly comes to see her father's sacrifices and recognizes that his project goals, though grand in scope, originated in his desire to help her maintain her mental balance.
Another legend, Mikhail Guskov, has been funding the project, but he has also been working on it from other angles, including a collaboration with a beautiful but psychopathic CIA officer. When Natalie is contacted in an unconventional way by another CIA agent, she realizes her small research project has attracted some very powerful players. Even when an experiment goes wrong and seems to kill a test subject, it does not stop government interest in using the Mappa Mundi project to control people.
The novel is set in the English city of York, in Washington, D.C., and on a reservation in Montana, and each place is economically portrayed with a few spare touches. Robson delves into how the aphrodisiac of power can affect individual and social identities. She is a romantic, but the stakes here are high and she pulls no punches. Gavin J. Grant is the co-editor of The Year's Best Fantasy &andamp; Horror: 2006 (St. Martin's).