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March 8th, 2003

Various people have raved to me about Justina Robson's first novel Silver Screen. However, her second Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlisted book, Mappa Mundi was the first of her books to find its way into my to-be-read bookcase. With a transatlantic flight looming, a hefty book was what was needed, and Mappa Mundi became my reading for a flight from London to San Francisco.

Natalie Armstrong is a scientist working on the mapping of human conciousness, the eponymous Mappa Mundi. It's been a long and complex process, but the end of the road is in sight. Computer models and experiments have put the international effort to the brink of success - but now it's time to start to deal with some of the possible outcomes of the work. It's not the ability to heal that worries Natalie, it's the side effect of control: the power to change the way someone thinks without them knowing. And someone has already started to experiment with these technologies...

In the USA, FBI agent Jude Westhope's sister has survivied a test of an early version of these technologies, a test that left her burnt at the hands of her next door neighbour. Jude is now in the UK, looking for Natalie, who might just be able to help him unravel the mystery. It's an unravelling that is going to change the world, as Mappa Mundi technologies begin to leave the lab, and the motivations of the politicians and scientists involved with the project are slowly revealed. Conspiracy and science twist around each other, as the prospect of ultimate power corrupts absolutely.

Is the key to solving the dilemma Natalie's forbidden Selfware project?

Robson's second novel is a gripping and compelling read. While it's possible to pick holes in the politics (I'm still unsure how one of the secondary characters could have risen to his position of power, given his multiple histories), she has given us a deep and inquisitive tale that tries to imagine the effects of a complete - and tested - theory of conciousness on the structures that hold society together. Robson's story is all the more relevant as today's memetic tools in the shape of the various broacast and print media attempt to mold and shape society into the shapes dictated by media moguls and political parties.

A cautionary tale in the shape of a scientific thriller, Mappa Mundi asks important questions, and sets us back on the road to the biotechnology future, armed with the tools we need to find more of the answers we're looking for.

It's also an excellent plane journey's worth of reading...
Wingèd Chariot is Ben Jeapes's second young adult novel for Scholastic, and like The Ark lives in that strange borderland between adult fiction and the YA marketplace.

Wingèd Chariot introduces us to the world of the Home Time, a time travelling civilisation. 2000 years from now the technology for time travel has existed for the last 400 years. It will stop working in 27 years, when the singularity that powers the time travel equipment fails. Not surprisingly, the patrician class that runs the Home Time is starting to get worried about how it will be able to entertain its 20 billion citizens, especially when the space civilisations are preventing expansion into space). The mysterious College guards the time streams, and sends agents to make sure that no one creates new parallel histories (at least no more than were accidently opened up by the creator of time travel), and to monitor the progess through time of the Correspondents, individuals sent back to wander through history watching and reporting - individuals who would have been Home Time criminals or psychological failures.

In 5000 BC a senior patrician of the College is murdered in his Himalayan retreat. He's also the person who seems to have the field recorder that a college agent, Rico Garron, is desperately trying to find. It's the first step in the unravelling of a conspiracy that's twisting the lives of a Correspondent interviewing history's most important philosophers, a pair of young biotechnologists press-ganged into the 21st century, and Garron's new boss. It's a plot that is trying to preserve the Home Time, but looks likely to destroy the stability the College has built over the last 4000 years.

Jeapes has managed the impossible here, creating a believable time-travelling society that has plausible reasons for avoiding altering history. He's then used this as the basis for plotting a taut thriller that bounces through the timelines. There's plenty of research here, Jeapes captures the flavour of his historical periods, and introduces the readers to a selection of philosophers that may not always be familiar. As the story builds to its climax you'll find a lot of complexity in here, but Jeapes drives his characters through the twists and turns, guiding them deftly towards an appropriately deus ex machina conclusion (or should that be machina ex deus?).

Wingèd Chariot is Jeapes best novel to date, and should be tracked down wherever possible - but don't be put off by the cover artwork.

(And of course yet another SF novel that takes its title from Andrew Marvell's poem "To His Coy Mistresse".)