Thursday, April 7, 2011

Review - Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge

Short review: Jackal is the chosen scion of an insane government, gets railroaded for a crime she did not commit, and is subjected to experimental punishment.

First Ren is a Hope
Then Ren is a prisoner
Then she finds herself

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Ren Segura, also known as Jackal, is the Hope of Ko. The fact that she is a Hope is the first indication that the world in which she lives in has gone insane. This is because the way that the nations of the world selected their respective "Hopes" is by choosing a child born on the first second of the first day of a predetermined New Year. In other words, an accident of birth results in a child be catapulted into a position that results in status, authority, and unrelenting pressure. That a child such as Segura would be placed in this position and left to be raised by a mentally unstable mother, and an indifferent father seems almost incredible. And it turns out that the insane selection criteria based upon birth time was not merely suggested, but mandated to such an extent that being born six minutes later is a huge issue sufficient to pose the risk of a ruinous scandal. So Segura starts the novel as a woman who has been placed on a pedestal for no real reason, subjected to the whims of her jealous and unstable mother, and placed under tremendous pressure to handle projects more suitable to someone with decades more experience and training than she possesses. One has to wonder why she had not cracked before the "scandalous" information about her birth is revealed. Though the novel is ostensibly about Ren's imprisonment and subsequent mental afflictions, it seems that the circumstances of her early life were damaging to begin with. In effect, Segura is already a broken person when she enters her solitary confinement.

The fact that she is a citizen of Ko, the first corporate state, is another indication that the world Segura lives in has gone insane. While it is a staple of cyberpunk to have giant multinational corporations wield enormous power and influence, it is fairly rare to have them treated like independent nations. And Ko seems to serve as an example why. Despite appearing to be a benevolent master, Ko is ruthless and, as one might expect from a corporation, displays almost no loyalty to any of its citizen-employees. In many ways, Ko is a beautiful dystopia, lovely on the surface, but horrible underneath. When a lifelong Ko employee objects to what turns out to be an inhumane project, he is quickly cashiered and his entire family stripped of citizenship to be dumped in an alien land with limited resources and a toxic resume. While the other characters express shock at this development, they all assume this is perfectly legitimate for Ko to take this action - but it highlights how a nation differs from a corporation, a nation cannot simply strip someone of their identity as a member of that nation on a whim. And a collateral question is exactly who controls Ko? Nations have governments, and in many nations the government is selected by something akin to a democratic process, giving the citizenry a say in how their nation is run. But corporations have Boards of Directors, and those Boards are selected by the shareholders. But who are Ko's shareholders? This is never really defined. A further question is exactly what sort of charter does Ko operate under - corporations are creations of law, defined by their Articles of Incorporation that are usually dictated by statute. But if Ko is a corporate-state, where do its articles of incorporation come from? On what base are they rooted?

The meat of the book does not deal with the lunatic nature of the nascent world government, or the inherent contradictions in the existence of a corporate state, but rather the life of a single individual caught in this cheerful dystopian meat grinder that consumes and nearly destroys her. Through a series of coincidences, Segura is at the wrong place at the wrong time and is accused of killing hundreds of people. Ko immediately shows its true callous and ruthless nature, coercing Segura into agreeing to plead guilty to the charges by threatening to ruin her family by revealing that her parents knew of the deception concerning Segura's birth (which Ko was complicit in, but Ko has conveniently doctored the records to hide this fact) in order to appease the Chinese government. And once again the dangers of a corporate state raise their head: Ko provides Segura with a lawyer. When it turns out that all of the exculpatory evidence that might exonerate Segura (and corroborate her version of events) has mysteriously disappeared, Ko pressures Segura to accept a plea bargain, which her attorney (paid for by Ko) also recommends. But Segura's attorney has a clear conflict of interest here: if she is beholden to Ko, and could be stripped of her citizenship and dumped into a hostile country with nothing for going against Ko's instructions, how can she give effective legal advice to Segura if Segura's interests and Ko's interests diverge? And who is going to watch over this to discipline her lawyer if they do behave unethically? In short, Ko's position as both corporation and government creates an almost inherent conflict of interest with respect to Segura's representation, but since Ko also presumably regulates that, they can hand-wave it away despite its readily apparent unfairness.

After railroading Segura, Ko secures her place in an experimental project in which prisoners are "locked" inside their own minds in accelerated solitary confinement. This was, ironically, the project Segura was to work on as project manager had circumstances not transpired to transform her into a non-citizen prisoner (and which the employee who was fired earlier in the book objected to on humanitarian grounds). So Segura exchanges forty years of conventional imprisonment for eight subjective years of solitary confinement, which will only take a handful of months of "real" time. This, it turns out, may or may not have been a wise decision. All of this is set up for the meat of the story: Segura's imprisonment and its aftermath. Despite seeming modestly benign at first glance - since it would allow the prisoner to discharge subjectively long sentences in objectively short periods of time - it seems difficult to come up with a more destructive form of incarceration. The prisoner is locked in complete isolation within their own mind, with no possibility of contacting anyone should the ordeal of being isolated from all of humanity prove to be too much to bear. Once inside the mental prison, the inmate is confined to a grey windowless cell with nothing but a cot, a view screen that plays bland, meaningless scenes, and a self-replenishing cupboard with a small amount of fairly bland food. And this tiny, completely isolated existence is to be endured for days, weeks, months, and years, with no possibility of a respite until the sentence has been completed. And if something goes wrong, there is no help. In short, it is a process almost guaranteed to mentally destroy the prisoner. And, of course, most of these details are concealed from the prisoner when they are asked to decide whether they want to participate in the experimental program (and of course, after they have been placed into solitary mental confinement, it is too late for them to change their mind).

Which leads to Segura's ordeal in prison, which Eskridge tells in a series of vignettes, taking the reader through the stages of the breakdown and reconstruction of Segura's psyche. Despite all of her advantages, Segura enters prison as a profoundly broken person: already cracking under the pressure of her status as Hope, distraught at her role, however innocent, in the death of her closest friends, estranged from her parents, thrown to the wolves by her nation, and even cut off - albeit voluntarily - from her lover. And yet Segura proves to be amazingly resilient when imprisoned, for the most part. Segura turns her training to disciplining her subjective days in order to prevent her mind from decaying out of disuse. And even so, despite her training and her rigor, Segura nearly goes insane and lets the despairing portion of her mind (which she personifies as "the crocodile") destroy and consume her. But Segura eventually overcomes this, and although the experience certainly damages her, it also heals her. Eventually, Segura unexpectedly accomplishes something that becomes her secret, and the thing that keeps her sane: she breaks out of her cell, and finds the island of Ko as her playground. Though it is uninhabited (as it is entirely within her mind), she is able to wander out of the minuscule grey cell she had spent years in to that point. It is this almost miraculous transformation of her environment that proves to be the key element of the remainder of the book.

Because, as with most prison sentences, Segura's ends, and she has to transition back into the real world as felon convicted of a notorious mass murder. But her sentence was also cut short because of unexplained and somewhat mysterious complications that arose (which an astute reader might link back to the objections to the project that led to the firing of the employee early in the book). And also, though it had been more than six subjective years for Segura, it had only been a matter of months for the rest of the world, so the terrible crime which had become attached to her was still fresh in the minds of the public. This means Segura returns from her isolation into a world in which she is ostracized, reviled, prohibited (as a felon) from living or working in most places (even if she could actually find an employer willing to hire her). But she does have something of a guardian angel that allows her to eschew the coercive offer to serve as a human lab rat. Eventually she makes contact with others who had been subjected to the same experimental isolation she suffered in a bar named Solitaire. And it is here that Segura learns that the line between reality and unreality is blurred via the psychological trauma of "aftershocks" which throw her and other veterans of the solitary experiments back into their mental cells seemingly at random. Now calling herself only Jackal, Segura must navigate her way back to real life, establishing herself with a circle of acquaintances that now consists of other criminals, pathetically desperate groupies, and the lover she thought she had lost.

In the end, Segura's story winds in on itself and leads back to the beginning. Though perhaps not intentional, the depiction of Ko in Solitaire is a brilliant case study in why corporations should never be accorded the status of nation states, as it acts unethically and inhumanely with no apparent meaningful check on its underhanded, deceptive, and coercive actions. Those who wonder at the mysteries of the events surrounding Segura's conviction are bound to be disappointed. Those who are only satisfied with a book in which poetic justice is served to the wicked will be dissatisfied. Because this book is not about happy fairy tale endings. It is about the harsh reality of an unjust system and an individual trying to find her way through it the best she can. In the end, though many questions remain unresolved, Segura is able to establish an uneasy truce that may allow her to do some lasting good. But even her work, which would be undeniably beneficial in the short term if successful opens the door to wider application of the technology in question, a proposition of dubious morality.

Solitaire is, if such a thing is possible, a beautiful dystopian vision of the future. Though seemingly cheerful and happy at first glance, as one delves deeper, the dysfunctional nature of the world in which Segura lives becomes apparent. Even the title "Hope", a word normally symbolizing something optimistic, is a status that warps and crushes Segura and those around her. The story, much like the name "Solitaire" is multilayered with multiple levels of meaning, and loaded with thought-provoking questions. In many ways, one of the most important elements of good science fiction is posing questions, and Solitaire raises so many sharp and incisive questions that even at the end the reader is left unsettled by how many are left lingering. Though the story is dark and depressing, in a strange sort of way it is cheerfully so. More to the point, it is a brilliant and brutal look at a deceptively happy dystopian world, combined with a vivid exploration of the inner workings of a mind isolated from the rest of humanity.

2003 Nebula Award Nominees
2003 Locus Award Nominees

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