Mappa Mundi – Justina Robson (2001)
‘As medical nanotechnology completes a map of the human brain, radical psychologist Natalie Armstrong sees her cutting-edge research suddenly leap out from the sidelines and into the heart of a black project intended to create comprehensive mind-control…
FBI science specialist Jude Westhorpe is on the trail of an elusive genius who’s involved in everything from gene sequencing to biological warfare. But Jude’s investigation has started to dig too deeply into matters affecting national security, putting his own and others’ lives on the line…
Could there really be a conspiracy among the international scientific community, bent not only on changing the world order but on creating a radical shift in human identity? When Mappa Mundi reaches completion, the race will be on to seize control of it – for winner takes all when you can alter a human mind with the flick of a switch.’
Blurb from the 2002 Pan paperback edition
Natalie Armstrong is a cutting edge researcher, engaged in a branch of the Mappa Mundi Project which seeks to initially map the human brain and ultimately, to use nanotechnological programmes to effect repairs to victims of aberrant brain functions. The US government has its own plans for the potential of ‘Selfware’, as does Mikhail Guschov, a sociopathic genius who has worked his way through several identities and criminal careers to a position of power in the Mappa Mundi hierarchy.
The potential for Selfware is terrifying. Solid religious belief (or indeed belief of any sort) could be spread through the population like a virus.
Jude Westhorpe, a Native American CIA Agent, travels to England to speak to Natalie following an incident on a Native American reservation where several previously sane individuals went on a destructive and murderous rampage.
Natalie concludes that the incident was caused by a crudely altered Selfware programme which had been released into the community as a test of Selfware’s military potential.
Robson shows a flair for characterisation and it is to her credit that all her characters have depth and flaws; are strong, yet vulnerable. The very nature of Selfware and the Mappa Mundi project is that it can correct the fatal flaws within the self and yet, Robson seems to be asking, would that not make us perhaps happier but less human? Dan, Natalie’s gay friend, is a case in point. His dependence on drugs and his lax attitude to work might be corrected by nanotechnology. Dan dies, as does Jude’s sister, White Horse, as indeed do others as a result of their basic natures. Selfware may have prevented this, but would the same people be living their lives? Robson does not make a major issue of this question, but it is one which surfaces subtly, long after the novel has been finished.
The novel is split between settings in England and North America, bringing a sense of vivacity to both. It’s a fast-paced conspiracy-based thriller, as well as being a first rate science fiction novel and Robson keeps the elements well-balanced while also fleshing out fully-rounded characters who live and breathe easily on the page, as consistently real in York as they are on the highways and reservations of the USA.