I’ve read this book without forming a strong opinion one way or another, so haven’t been conclusively won over. Perhaps it’s because I’ve read and reviewed several sci-fi novels in 2017 which hinge on tele-psychic abilities to manipulate others into doing what the control freak wants (Psionik, The Wolfe Experiment, Netwalking Space and The REM Effect) and that could mean I’m a little jaded by this sub-genre and hunting around for something new to say about it.
This story has been set in two parts of the world — (i: Team Sarah) Around the site of a small clump of trees in the Democratic Republic of Congo, near the Rwandan border, where a rare natural chemical compound can be sourced. (ii: Team Asha) Around the political epicentre of a first world city, where a refined version of the drug is being used to manipulate others in power plays. That’s not to say it isn’t being used in Africa too, just that it’s used there for different reasons, e.g. reaching safety.
Skein space, that’s what you get access to after popping one of these tablets. Firstly, psychic awareness, then visualisation of the connections people make to others as they form their networks of subconscious safety nets. Reassurance, work groups, familial affection, love — all of these things become targets because the user of the drug can reach out and rip them away. If someone has very few links remaining, they essentially fall apart and struggle to function, so you’ve beaten them and can step into their shoes. Do you begin to see the attraction?
Where once people had used this brain bending trick for survival, now they see an opportunity to apply it to political lobbying, forcing politicians out of office and networking with others of their kind to bring about global change. It’s difficult to keep balance on your moral soap box when you’re playing nasty tricks like this though. A completely separate team back in Africa, searching for a cure to dementia amongst simian species, can be seen approaching it from a different angle, although that gets messy too.
“My tribe is your tribe”, they pulse into their targets’ heads to gain their cooperation. “I am the Alpha”, they try that as well, although this message isn’t always answered. These two suggestions, more than anything else, bring home the point that humans are simians too and, deep down in the basic programming, we feel comfortable with ape-tribe dynamics. The problem is, “your tribe” hints that others exist outside that demarcation, competitors who probably outnumber you. If the secret gets out and the human race takes notice, so scaling up becomes essential to the cause, how many pills can you get from this small clump of trees that are hard to find?
Primitive dominance thinking is never far away from physical fighting, so we are talking about behaving like like yahoos and these characters should be smart enough to see you can’t live in a world like this. Then again, you can do anything you like in most countries in the interval between invention and when they make legislation to stop it. Legal highs? There’s a lag, isn’t there? Society adapts in response to things which antagonise it and if this dramatic idea were possible, I can see the experiment would indeed be allowed to run for a short time because there’s nothing to stop it in law. We would have trouble even establishing a link between the drug and the effect.
In fiction, a fear of change that upsets everything and make us vulnerable and scared should be as realistically possible as possible. The more real the fear is, the more unsettled the reader becomes and that’s what gives the novel a sense of worth. Jaws felt real because Great White Sharks are real, so only required exaggeration. Telepathic stuff though? I did not feel persuaded that this mind-control system would be possible, so I think that’s why I wasn’t hooked. I can’t say whether my reaction was typical or an outlier, so don’t read that negatively because you might feel a stronger affiliation. “My tribe is your tribe” doesn’t work on everyone all of the time, but might seem more persuasive to you.
Otherwise, the book was a dramatic thriller, well written and the jungle description in particular was vivid and atmospheric. It was alright but didn’t exceed the quality of other books in this category, so gets an average rating.