Fantastic Reviews - Science Fiction Book Review
hyperthought book cover Hyperthought by M. M. Buckner

Ace Books paperback - copyright 2003
177 pages
Cover art by Craig White (left)

Book reviewed in April 2003
Rating: 5/10  (Mildly Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

Hyperthought was a finalist for the 2004 Philip K. Dick award

       M.M. Buckner's first novel Hyperthought announces her as a writer to watch.  Its strengths promise greater things in the future, while its flaws are easily forgiven, hopefully reflecting only the awkwardness commonly seen in a first novel.

       The tale is set in the year 2125, a generation after a series of ecological disasters left the surface and oceans of the Earth violently toxic.  The remnants of mankind live clustered underground and in domed cities.  The northern hemisphere is mired in a feudal system, with most of the population bound into perpetual serfdom to the huge dot-com corporations that control the economy.

       Parisian Jolie Sauvage, our first-person narrator, survived this period of ecological and economic upheaval as a child, and now earns a living conducting tours of the treacherous surface for wealthy executives.  At the outset of the novel, Jolie meets Jin Airlangga Sura when he signs up for one of her tours.  Jin is a famous actor and son of Suradon Sura, one of the three most powerful executives in the world.  To Jolie, Jin represents the despicable overlords of the northern hemisphere, and she fully intends to loathe him.  However, he defies her expectations, and Jolie soon forms a powerful attachment to Jin.

       Jin recognizes the terrible inequities in the social system his father has helped to create.  Inspired by the Indonesian legend of Prince Airlangga, it is Jin's ambition to liberate the people from his own father's oppression.  He decides to undergo experimental treatment, administered by the unscrupulous Dr. Judith Merida, to heighten his brain's sensitivity to "quantum input" in the desperate hope that with this revolutionary "hyperthought" he will find a way to correct matters.

       Meanwhile, rebellion and war break out throughout the northern hemisphere, forcing Jolie to relocate from Paris to Australia, and cutting her off from regular contact with Jin.  From the few messages that get through, Jolie becomes convinced that the hyperthought treatment is harming Jin, and resolves to rescue him from Dr. Merida.  This rescue effort occupies most of the story.

       The narrative of Hyperthought is peppered with enjoyable ironies of language, such as referring to dot-com executives as "Commies," and people who dare to walk around on the dry land of the Earth's surface as "surfers."  Similarly, we are told that people live in "Paris" or "San Francisco," but the places they inhabit are entirely different from the cities we know, long since abandoned.  In the course of Jolie's rescue operation, we get to see the original city of San Francisco, now a surreal underwater landscape.

       Unfortunately, the narrative is also replete with awkward and jarring uses of language.  One example that is particularly irritating because it is so persistent is Buckner's distracting use of French phrases throughout the narrative - nearly always "bien sr," "a va" or "d'accord" - in an unconvincing attempt to make Jolie seem French.  (Buckner's use of these phrases doesn't even convince me that she speaks any French.  Certainly her editors do not, making such corrections as changing "enfant" to "infant.")

       Despite this flaw, the strong-willed Jolie is a very involving lead character.  She is uneducated and slightly dim-witted, but not nearly so dim as she thinks she is.  What she lacks in intelligence, she more than makes up for with sheer determination.  Her emotional responses are quite believable, for instance falling in love with Jin even as she remains annoyed by his arrogance.  The portrayal of Jin is also interestingly ambiguous, but the rest of the characters are one-dimensional at best.

       At times Buckner seems in too great a hurry to get through the story, and some of the elements of the plot would have benefited from further development, but on the whole I prefer Buckner's lean and economical mode of storytelling to the overly wordy prose of most of today's new authors.

       The story effectively draws the reader in, even though some of Buckner's attempts to ratchet up the dramatic tension fall flat.  For instance, Dr. Merida runs a tiny clinic on a shoestring budget and yet we are asked to believe that somehow (a) she has a double agent working for her in Australia who is able to infiltrate Jolie's network of friends in a single day, and (b) development of her experimental process is crucial to the economic survival of Suradon Sura's megacorporation, even though it already owns one-third of the entire northern hemisphere.  Just as implausibly, we are told that the success of the workers' rebellion in Europe depends primarily on whether Jolie can transmit a few words of inspiration to them.

       The most disappointing aspect of Buckner's handling of the story, however, is that "hyperthought" ends up being nothing more than a McGuffin, an excuse for Jolie to embark on her operation to rescue Jin.  We are led to expect that Dr. Merida's treatment will have a dramatic impact on Jin's mental capacity, with revolutionary implications for all of humanity.  But unlike her lead character Jolie, Buckner loses her nerve, pulling back from these implications.  Instead of a radical enhancement of the human mind, the treatment's only effect seems to be to place Jin in a state of artificially induced autism.

       The novel fails to follow through on all the talk of "hyperthought" and correcting social imbalances and surviving the harsh environment, settling instead into a fairly conventional rescue adventure plot.  Let us hope that Buckner's next effort puts her writing talents to better use.
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Copyright 2003 Aaron Hughes

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