When is a book science fiction, hard sci-fi, or a thriller? Mappa Mundi by Justina Robson succeeds as all three at once. Robson takes a near-future setting with bio-technological advances at the edge of probability and surrounds it with political intrigue and grand plots with a distinctly dystopian feel. One can’t help but weigh actions versus motivations versus the consequences of potentially beneficial scientific advancement when used by the ambitious powers of the world, all the while wondering if this could really happen.
The central plot of the book revolves around the development of bio-technology that essentially integrates computer-type programming and the human brain. Natalie is the proto-typical well-intentioned scientist developing a body of work that can fix all mental illness and truly benefit human-kind. Of course her research is sponsored by government with aims of applying her results differently.
Jude is a special branch FBI investigator whose sister has become involved in something big and bad. His private investigation leads him to Natalie and her research and a connection to an elusive Russian criminal mastermind he has been pursuing for some time.
Experiments go wrong, various deaths occur, and opposing interests clash as events spin out of control and the technology horrifically realizes itself, building to an unanticipated conclusion.
As I wrote earlier, Robson succeeds in creating the elements of a great sci-fi thriller, and I’m a sucker for a strong leading female protagonist. While the prose is generally tight, it does get bogged down in technical language at times, causing a bit of confusion – I can’t say that it is an easy read.
Mappa Mundi begins with a prologue of sorts that introduces us to the significant characters at earlier stages in their lives, giving us a feel for them before we get to the events driving the story. I can easily see these introductions being cut from the book, but I’m glad they weren’t. They provide an important baseline for the characters, helping the reader to understand and question motives throughout events of the story. However, this approach gives the book a slow and somewhat confusing start.
Mappa Mundi allows enjoyment for both the thinking and the escapist reader, while providing the excitement and twists of a typical thriller. After its slow start, the pace increases to evoke the cliché reaction: I couldn’t put it down. On my 10-point rating scale, Mappa Mundi scores a 7 and a solid recommendation in spite of a few hang-ups. I’m looking forward to reading other offerings from Robson.