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Brain Thief, Alexander Jablokov

Brain Thief, Alexander Jablokov
(2010 Tor, $24.99, 383pp)

In recent years, a number of literary authors have dipped their toes in the waters of science fiction. However, their lack of confidence, or inexperience, in deploying sf tropes often gives such attempts an air of diffidence, which in turn gives the novels an old-fashioned feel. This is because sf is a mode of storytelling, it is not just the garden in which its stories play. The reverse, science fiction authors writing mainstream fiction, is less common. But when science fiction authors write non-sf, it is never really not science fiction. Brain Thief, Alexander Jablokov’s new novel, is a case in point. It is science fiction lite; it presents its mystery credentials with greater authority than it does its science fiction credentials. But it is still at heart a story told in science fiction mode.

Brain Thief is Jablokov’s first novel after a ten-year hiatus. When a pop singer or rock star disappears for a decade, they’re retrenching, or “charging their creative batteries”, and there’s an expectation their new material will be a significant improvement over their last. When a writer – especially a genre writer – vanishes for ten years, it’s usually because real life has intervened. And so it was with Alexander Jablokov, whose previous novel, Deepdrive, was published in 1998. Jablokov has made no secret of that fact that he stopped writing novels “to raise a family and make a living”.

If there’s a fear attached to the return to writing of novelists after a lengthy period, it’s that they’ve failed to keep progress with their chosen genre and their new book reads like one that could have been written before they dropped from sight. Admittedly, Jablokov had shown a wide facility within the genre, from knowing interplanetary adventure to cyberpunk to new space opera. Happily, Brain Thief is very much a late noughties sf novel and – if this doesn’t sound too much like jacket copy – is almost the novel Bruce Sterling might have written if he hadn’t written The Caryatids.

While there are clear likenesses to Sterling’s fiction, Jablokov does not spin off ideas with the same frequency or outrageousness. Nor does he need to – Brain Thief is, after all, not a science fictional novel, but a mystery novel told in science fiction mode. Initially, this collision of modes makes for an annoying read – in science fiction, there is a world to be laid out before the reader; in a mystery novel, much has to be withheld. So while Jablokov happily explains the world of his story, he’s less open about the plot which drives it.

Bernal Haydon-Rumi is personal assistant to Muriel Inglis, a wealthy widow who finances oddball projects. One of these projects is Hesketh, an AI-controlled interplanetary probe under development by lone researcher Madeline Ungaro. On his return from a business trip, Bernal discovers that both Muriel and Hesketh have disappeared. And their disappearances are linked. He finds himself following a trail of clues – some generated by Muriel herself, some discovered on his own. Both disappearances, of course, have a single solution – not only the nature of the Artificial Intelligence which drives Hesketh, but also the one thread which binds all the characters into a single narrative.

Brain Thief is populated with a well-drawn, entertaining cast of characters. Bernal himself might be a tabula rasa, as is required by the story, but the rest might well populate an oddball comedy-drama set somewhere in one the USA’s more oddball corners. This is not a criticism – Brain Thief‘s characters are one of its strengths. Another is its writing. Its biggest strength is perhaps the fact that it isn’t trying to be a science fiction novel and a mystery novel. The sf permeates the mystery story, it’s not continually fighting it for dominance. Which means the resolution satisifies because it doesn’t need to do more than resolve the story. Jablokov has judged his plot, and integrated his world, to a nicety.

I wouldn’t surprised to see Brain Thief on a few shortlists in 2011.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #226, January – February 2010.

(Yet more evidence that sf awards are completely out of touch, irrelevant and no longer serve a useful purpose – Brain Thief, an excellent novel, appeared on only the Locus SF Novel list (as 16th of 18 titles). The big winner in 2011 was the bloated monstrosity that is Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear. Why bother, eh?)

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