Reclaimed, Madeleine Roux (Ace 978-0451491855, 320pp, $17.00) August 2021.
Not many tropes derive their name from one specific seminal work of art. And yet such a thing did happen with the 1932 Karloff spookfest, The Old Dark House. Over the decades, the movie gradually lent its name to a whole genre or iconography, whose lineaments are now so familiar that their invocation often results in cliché. But mashing up “The Old Dark House” motif with science fiction, as Madeleine Roux has done in her latest novel, has an invigorating and reviving effect on what might have otherwise been an over-familiar tale. It’s a swift, entertaining read with one somewhat bothersome and all-too-common world-building flaw that I will mention later.
Our initial setting is Tokyo Bliss Station in the year 2268. A vast offworld habitat in our solar system, the place reminded me of the urban conglomerations in Jodorowsky and Moebius’s The Incal.
Below her, Tokyo Bliss Station unfurled like a sci-fi cocaine dream, seen from the top, a bottomless well of possibility, depravity, commerce, research and life. Heady, filthy life, so many people and animals packed into one orbiting meat grinder of humanity. When she was younger it was intoxicating. Now she wished desperately to escape it.
Resident on the station are our three protagonists, each of them granted alternating point-of-view chapters with nicely delineated voices. Initially without any social contacts among them, they will soon find their fates merging, due to the identical desire in each of them: to forget what is painful.
First is Senna, a young woman whose life in a cult ended tragically and left her with PTSD and other afflictions. Next is Han, a 14-year-old tech genius who lost his mother in the same calamity that wrecked Senna’s life. Lastly is Zurri, a celebrity and top fashion model who, as the unfortunate capstone to a life of privilege and wealth, has just been subjected to watching a man burn up alive in close proximity to her. All three of these victims jump at a certain advertisement:
NOW IMAGINE IT NEVER HAPPENED AT ALL.
This proves to be the lure for a very risky project helmed by one Paxton Dunn, billionaire genius who lives in a private smart enclave on Ganymede, along with a handful of staff members. Before you can say “Dark Old House relocated into a poisonous atmosphere at a temperature of 113 degrees below zero Celsius,” our trio is en route to Paxton’s lair.
Once on Ganymede, they are treated as pampered guests rather than experimental subjects. But soon various creepy incidents begin to proliferate, indicating that all is not innocent and aboveboard. (Even departure and communications with the outside world are precluded by cosmic storms, in the exact manner of the trope.) The nature of the machine that alters memories is not what Paxton says it is, and in fact the book’s big reveal—well done and pretty much unguessable—involves the hidden technology behind the device. Also, there is a mysterious stranger named Efren who comes and goes inexplicably….
The theme of memory alteration is a major and potent one for SF, showing up in such places as Wolfe’s Soldier series and Effinger’s The Wolves of Memory. More mainstream productions such as 50 First Dates also resonate here. Roux has devoted some thought to novel and satisfying explanations of how such tech might actually work.
“A memory is just a series of connections,” Paxton told her. He smiled, at ease, and she wondered if he had practiced this speech for just such an occasion. Tapping his VIT, the star-field projection disappeared, replaced by a web of three-dimensional, filmy crimson lines, almost like a central nervous system but all clustered into one glob. It rotated slowly, sections of the web lighting up as he spoke.
“We can’t look at your neural map and zap just one thing,” he continued, then thought about it and paused. “Although that would be nice.”
“Instead, we have to weaken the connections between memories and events. Once those connections become more vulnerable, we can rewrite the way you associate those memories.” As he explained, some of the ropy lines on the projection turned blue, then pale blue, and then the connective tissue between them dissolved. “We reconnect A and B to D, instead of C. If C, for our purposes, is pain, and D is happiness, or just neutrality.”
Characterizations are solid and substantial, albeit not of the deepest. Along with some Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos mannerisms, Paxton has a bit of Fifty Shades of Grey vibe about him, in his domineering manner and even some sexual kinks. But you will certainly root for the believable good guys and turn the pages quickly to follow their hazardous adventures.
What’s my gripe about the worldbuilding? That good old over-reliance on cultural touchstones from our era. Some 250 years hence, people are still salting their talk with references to Jumanji, Kool Aid, Michael Douglas, Willy Wonka, and other transient fads of our era. Yes, there is persistence of culture down the centuries, especially with digital storage technologies. But it’s as if the average person of 2021 offhandedly quoted Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) and whistled “Soft Flowing Avon” (1769).
However, Roux’s easy-going prose, fairly rigorous speculations, and engaging cast conspire to deliver some spooky SF that proves some tropes are eternal.
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