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The mind's I - 'The Many Selves of Katherine North'

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Debut novel a compelling, quality work of literary science fiction

One could argue that we're currently riding a wave of literary science fiction unlike any we've seen before. Genre tropes have been embraced by 'serious' writers in a way that has opened up seemingly endless possibilities and allowed for new ways to ask some of the age-old questions addressed by literature.

Emma Geen's debut novel is 'The Many Selves of Katherine North' (Bloomsbury, $26); it utilizes a sci-fi structure to tackle big questions about personality, ethics, identity and the nature of reality. Using some near-future tech and a split-timeline narrative, Geen creates a rich and complicated heroine whose unique gifts might well be making the transition from blessing to curse.

Katherine Kit to her friends and family works for a massive conglomerate called the Shen Corporation. She is what is known as a 'phenomenaut' she and others like her project themselves into vat-grown bodies of animals in an effort to undertake an assortment of research. With her trusty neuorengineer partner Buckley always in her head to steer her and tether her to her human life, she spends weeks of her life living as a fox, a bear, a spider, a batpretty much every part of the animal kingdom.

At 19 years old, she has been jumping for seven years far longer than anyone ever has. She lives in fear that she will be diagnosed with the dreaded decrease in 'plasticity' that will remove her from active duty. Many have come and gone since she came onboard at age 12, but Kit refuses to allow herself to join them.

However, when some of the darker and more sinister machinations of ShenCorp start to bubble to the surface, Kit is left adrift. The motives of everyone even those closest to her come into question; even when she's living the instinct-driven lives of her animal surrogates, she's not sure she can believe her own senses. Katherine North has lived many lives, but she has lost track of the most important one her own.

Emma Geen brings a formidable depth of philosophical and psychological understanding to this, her first novel. Her rendering of Kit's time spent living with and becoming animals makes for fascinating reading, granting the reader a real sense of seeing the world through the eyes of the other. That's far from the only shift of the perspective paradigm, however the narrative split bounces back and forth between time periods, allowing the more mysterious aspects of the story to unfold in parallel.

'The Many Selves of Katherine North' exists in a meticulously constructed near-future that is quite close to our own. The complex dynamics of this place a world where the best operatives in the most lucrative profession just happen to be children are particularly conducive to introducing certain ethical questions. And of course, Kit herself is tailor-made to bring forth fluid, flexible ideas regarding the notion of identity.

Of course, it all works because Geen has put together a compulsively readable sci-fi thriller. The mysteries keep unfolding, with plenty of twists and turns, red herrings and left-field surprises. And since the timeline keeps shifting, different mysteries move to the forefront at different times. One might think that the consistent inconsistency of the narrative would prove confusing, but Geen handles it beautifully, balancing Kit's dueling perspectives with aplomb. While the book shines brightest when we follow Kit into the bodies of her animal analogues, the truth is that it's all pretty fantastic.

'The Many Selves of Katherine North' would be an accomplishment from any writer, but the fact that this book comes from a first-time novelist is simply astonishing. Emma Geen has built a vivid and wildly engaging world around an incredibly compelling protagonist, creating a piece of work that transcends genre. No qualifiers are needed; this is a great book, full stop.

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:48


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