Today’s review, of Mappa Mundi by Justina Robson, first appeared in Foundation 84, Spring 2002.
To chart a way through this novel we must begin with the title: Mappa Mundi, the map of the world. The Mappa Mundi is a thirteenth-century map on display at Hereford Cathedral in which Jerusalem is seen to be the centre of the world. It is also a term that seems to have become suddenly fashionable. John Clute used it in Appleseed; now it is Justina Robson’s title and principal McGuffin, and despite the fact that the two novels are set eons and light years apart, both authors are using the term in essentially the same way: the egocentric world view, the world is what we perceive it to be.
Before we move away from base camp, note also that the publisher has chosen to decorate the cover with only one puff, from Zadie Smith, current new young literary darling and co-winner with Robson of a recent writing grant. Smith is not known for writing science fiction, or even, for all we might be aware, for reading it. We can read into this the suggestion that the book is aimed less at the hardened science fiction audience than at the hip mainstream. Should this alter the route we might choose to take through the work?
So, clutching our world map but perhaps uncertain as to our destination, we begin the journey. (On the right you will see the “Thanks”: “I have taken some liberties and made some imaginative leaps with the facts in order to make the scientific element of this story fit the drama”. To our left we are passing the epigraph from Charles Darwin: “Free will is an illusion caused by our inability to analyse our own motives.”) We come first to the Legends, and pause because here, surely, is the key we will need to read the rest of the map.
Here, in short scenes, we are introduced to six of the most significant characters in the novel. We see Natalie as a young girl playing fantasy games in the wood, a girl who is afraid of the dark but who holds off the fear in a magical compact with the twilight, a girl who discovers that “the safe world was a web of lies.” We see Jude, a high school student with some Native American blood in his veins (at this point the signpost doesn’t really tell us very much), hunting with rich white friends, one of whom may have Asperger’s (we meet someone else with Asperger’s much later in the novel: both are minor characters, spear-carriers in the drama, but the impression is of a world made up of people not entirely right in the head – how does this affect our world map?). We see Mikhail, a displaced person from the moment of his birth, someone adept at becoming other people, a criminal who is also a scientific genius, someone who works variously for the Russian mafia, the KGB, the CIA, but always for himself. Through Mikhail we learn: “The right ideas are the ones you get by seeing yourself not as a player in a game or a mote in the eye of god but as a world, an entire universe, within which all things are possible and all sources found.” We see Mary travelling to her uncle’s funeral through towns “each smaller and more grindingly stricken by economic failure than the last.” We see Ian leading a life of unexamined failure and regret, and Dan unhappy with himself and his world but believing “The Universe rewards a good deed.”
What we find here are the symbols by which each of these characters reads their own world map; the legends, in that other sense, that make up who they believe themselves to be. But as a key for us, the readers, it is deceptive. We are shown the worlds from which they come, not the worlds they will inhabit throughout the body of the novel, and these are very different places. The Natalie who is pinned down in this box, for example, contains no referent for mother or father, yet as she becomes the central character in the book the death of her mother and the occupation of her father are revealed to play a major role in shaping who she is and what her world becomes. Robson is not telling us the whole story, and this reticence, this withholding, will develop into one of the most persistent and often most annoying motifs in the writing of the novel.
But the road is leading on. We come next to the Compass Rose, nestled up close against the legend. Let’s get our bearings here, find the direction we are meant to take through the story.
White Horse wakes to find her house on fire, and as she escapes the blaze she finds a friend and neighbour waiting to kill her. She escapes, but at a cost, and we have a crime, a mystery, to kick-start the plot. But though the dotted line of this footpath can be discerned winding across most of the landscape we must traverse, it is not the direct route we need to follow.
Before we set out across country, we should, map in hand, try to work out the relationship between these symbols and the things we see ahead of us. The images we have been given are small and incomplete in comparison with the landmarks we must navigate by. This Natalie, for example: how is the small, frightened girl we have seen meant to stand for the highly intelligent woman we now encounter, a woman who has, at some vague point in the past, been hospitalised for depression but who now is pursuing groundbreaking research in the mental sciences? (The incidence of depression in her past is just part of a pattern that is coming to seem a common thread in Robson’s work, even after only two books: the damaged heroine whose damage is part of what makes her strong enough to play the part of heroine. But it is also part of a pattern within this particular novel: so many of her characters suffer some sort of psychological or physical damage that in so far as the world is how they perceive it, the world itself must perforce be damaged.) And the Dan who sought to perform a good deed that might be rewarded, how is he the craven, drug-addicted homosexual who works as Natalie’s assistant and who shares her flat? Dan is never in control of his actions, everything he does is led by secret controllers and by his own weaknesses, so in the end, when he both betrays and rescues Natalie, it seems impossible to either blame or praise him. This is a world without moral affect, and that amorality is only partly due to the author’s intent.
The map of the title, it becomes clear, is an effect of nanotechnology and psychological programming that allows our feelings, our beliefs, our actions to be controlled by others. It is, it would seem, the dawning of an age without moral responsibility, except on the part of those who do the controlling. And these potential controllers, the various shadowy forces in conflict throughout the novel for the final part in the puzzle that will give them this new mastery, are invariably and studiously amoral themselves. Part of the skewed perspective on the world that we are presented with is that in all actions that really matter, the idea of doing good is effectively an irrelevance. Oh, various of the characters try to do what they think is right, but time and again we see that even without the mind control of Mappa Mundi the political universe in which we move is far too complex for anyone to have any idea of what is right or wrong anyway.
And a complex world it is indeed. The landscape of Mappa Mundi is littered with vague, ill-defined forces, most of whom intrude upon the narrative only peripherally, strange shapes gathering around the edges of the known world and marked “here be dragons”. We don’t know who they are, what they are working for, whether they are good guys or bad guys. But that is true of just about everyone in the novel; apart from our two central characters, Natalie and Jude, everyone seems to carry a multiplicity of white and black hats which can be donned as circumstances require. I lost count of the number of times we are urged to cheer an apparent villain, or boo someone who, moments before, had seemed on the side of the angels. Robson handles this rich multiplicity of contending forces with remarkable assurance, picturing the shifting allegiances, the betrayal and counter-betrayal, like a master of the spy plot. The only problem is that the world is so multifarious that to reach any sort of a satisfying conclusion she has to narrow the issues so much that the final battle can seem too simple an ending to the war it decides.
One way she achieves this apparent complexity, however, is to leave large parts of the map blank, most notably in relation to the Mappa Mundi itself. For much of the novel we get no more than vague references to a plethora of things called NervePath or Selfware or other such computery sounding terms. But we are never told what they do or how they work. Are they indeed computer programmes injected in some way into the patient? Are they control systems for nanomachines? There are times when we might think of them as some sort of ray beamed at a victim; at other times they are like remotely-controlled viruses. But whenever questions are raised about what these things are or how they are used, Robson changes the subject. Indeed, so persistently does she sidestep these issues that not only does it seem we are being kept artlessly in the dark, but that she doesn’t really know the details of what she was writing about. It is three-quarters of the way through the book before we get a relatively straightforward statement of what is involved in the Mappa Mundi project, and even then much of what contributes to the project is simply glossed over.
And there are strange lacunae in the chronology of the novel also. The attack on White Horse, which gets the plot rolling by setting her brother, FBI agent Jude, to begin investigating independently, turns out to be the fall-out from a test of part of Mappa Mundi by rogue elements within the US army. But the crudity of this attack is offset by the subtlety with which Mary, Jude’s partner but also a rogue element herself, uses similar technology to control Dan. And if the technology already exists for Mary to control Dan, why is it never used in any other circumstances by Mary when it would clearly help her to achieve her goals?
Then there is the character of Mikhail who is, in one of his many personae, the target of Mary and Jude’s investigations in America, and in another the head of the Mappa Mundi research project for which Natalie works in York. When an FBI file mysteriously comes into Jude’s hands it neatly lays out all the different characters that Mikhail has played throughout his life, yet it seems that nobody before has made the connection, not even the people who presumably compiled the file in the first place. And those people high in the covert services of the USA who are using Mikhail, and who might be imagined to know something of his duplicitous nature, seem unprepared for the idea that he might be working to ends other than their own.
It could be that the complexity of this amoral, dog-eat-dog world got out of Robson’s control. After all, no relationship in the novel is simple. White Horse comes to Jude for help, but despises him for abandoning his Native American roots. Jude deceives his partner and his bosses by setting out on an unsanctioned investigation. Mary and Jude are close partners, friends and potential lovers, but she is betraying him. Dan is Natalie’s best friend and is desperately trying to protect her, but he is also the one who betrays her. Natalie and Jude become lovers without ever knowing for sure if they can trust each other. Every relationship in the book contains the seeds of its own destruction, bringing characters together and pushing them apart with equal force. The world as they see it, therefore; the world that we the readers must try to make sense of, is a murky, contradictory place with no sure boundaries, with no stable pathways. That it holds together as well as it does is a testament to the author’s skill; that it does not, and can not, entirely hold together, is perhaps inevitable. We hold the map in our hands, we look out over the landscape it portrays, and we see a track that starts off here and reaches its destination over there. But is it the same track? Not really: the path is not whole and solid all the way from the beginning to the end.
Nevertheless, reach a destination we do, and if the place we reach may not seem a wholly satisfying conclusion to our journey, at least the journey itself was rich and varied and at time exhilarating.