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Mind over Ship by David Marusek

Cover art by Chris Moore

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Although this volume is a sequel to Counting Heads, it does not continue all the storylines of the original novel. Obviously Sam Harger's storyline ended with his heroic death saving his not-quite-daughter from the sinister clinic where her treatment was being deliberately mishandled. However, the entire Kodiak Charter storyline has fallen away, except for a single cameo -- a disappointment to me, since I'd come to really like Bogdan the perpetual boy and his housemeets and their struggle to keep their dying charter alive without letting it be swallowed up in a larger charter.

Instead, the story focuses almost entirely upon Fred Londenstane and his deteriorating relationship with his wife Mary Skarland, for whom he risked everything in the climax of Counting Heads, with a minor-key focus on Archbishop Meewee of the Birthright and his struggle to preserve the grand plan to seed humanity through all the galaxy from greedy elites who would instead turn the spaceships into gigantic space condos for the wealthy, and screw the ordinary people. Even the story of Ellen Starke's struggle to grow herself a new body after her catastrophic injuries in Counting Heads is important only as it impinges upon their stories.

As the story begins, Fred has been acquitted of the charges against him from his attack on the rotten clinic, a situation that does not please certain powerful people and organizations. However, while iterants are clones created to do the labor that regular people don't really want to do, they're not genetic slaves or azi -- they can't simply be destroyed for being inconvenient.

However, they can have their lives made miserable, as Fred soon discovers. Although iterants are second-class citizens who don't enjoy certain rights and privileges taken for granted by regular people, they still work for pay and get to spend that pay for necessities and luxuries like regular people. Which means that Fred's ability to get a job can be a lever against him -- or worse, a stick with which to beat him. He's a russ, a member of a line of iterants usually given very responsible work related to security. However, because of his record, he suddenly discovers that the only work available to him is far lower, usually given to a routine-labor line known as johns. Even appealing to his line's benevolent and protective Brotherhood gets him no results.

Meanwhile, Mary's holodrama character is bringing in enormous amounts of money, even as she continues her work as one of Ellen Starke's watchful companions, helping the young woman recover from her terrible injuries. The growing disparity in their financial positions is rapidly tearing their relationship apart, to the point that Fred decides it's time to get some distance and takes a job at Trailing Earth, where a number of the colony ships are being held while the battle for their future plays out.

Except there's no peace there. He's discovering hints of some kind of sinister conspiracy, and he's drawn the enmity of the donalds, a line of iterants specifically designed for work in space. Small, nearly hairless and highly sexed, they are disliked even by the other lines of space workers. And they take every opportunity to make Fred's life a living hell.

Even as he's struggling to deal with the donalds, he's getting increasing evidence that something is desperately wrong with Mary. First, he hears that several of the evangeline holodrama characters are slipping into a curious lassitude, and then he hears that actual evangelines are experiencing the same unshakable depression, descending into a sort of catatonia. In order to have conversations in realtime in spite of the lightspeed lag between Earth and Trailing Earth, Mary sent a sort of interactive mindstate recording of herself with Fred, and it updates regularly so they can catch up on things that have been going on. At first this alter ego has remained lively, if showing some of the strains that had been pulling their realbody relationship apart. But as time goes by, it too starts to slip away, losing interest in interacting with Fred in ways that set off his alarm bells.

Meanwhile, Meewee is working his way ever deeper into the Starke Family's enterprises, and is discovering that Eleanor Starke had some very strange projects going on. When Ellen had started talking about her mother being alive, her therapists had simply assumed that it was a delusion and set her evangeline attendants to the task of detecting each instance of it for neurological pruning. Mary had dutifully marked each one of them, and Ellen seemed to be accepting her mother's death.

But now Meewee is discovering several whole lines of brainfish that have captured the essence of Eleanor Starke's being. While he is walking around the grounds, they begin to talk to him in Eleanor's voice, at first in a confused manner, rather like a tape recording. But as he regularly interacts with this ghost-Eleanor, her mind grows increasingly focused and she begins to have rational conversations with Meewee -- until Ellen catches wind of it. Thanks to the well-meaning interventions of her therapists, she decides that it's a vicious trick to mock her, and orders all the ponds drained to destroy the brainfish.

So off Meewee goes on a desperate crusade to save this remnant of Eleanor, only to discover that it's no miracle, no happy accident, but part of a new plan to allow the elite to live forever without the deletorious effects of immortality upon the genepool. In a sort of technological reincarnation, they will be able to migrate on a regular basis to new bodies, thus allowing them to adapt genetically to changing conditions while remaining themselves. Needless to say, it's pretty well implied that this technology will not be available to the general population, who will just have to accept their own mortality when the time comes.

Even as Meewee is being tempted with personal immortality, Fred launches his own personal crusade, this time not just to rescue Mary, but also to create a future for all iterants who want to go to the stars and create a world for themselves instead of just serving born humans.

Yet again it's a triumphant vision of a super-high-tech future in the tradition of the cyberpunks, but with the cynicism and anomie so typical of them moderated by the intense familial loves of the central protagonists. In many ways it satisfactorily completes the story arc that began with Counting Heads, and I could live happily if that's all David Marusek ever writes about this fascinating world. But at the same time, I really would like one more novel telling what happens to Fred and Mary, and particularly if any cure is ever found for the mysterious wasting of the evangelines. The last scene suggests such a thing, but it's just ambiguous enough to make me really want one more book showing us where it goes.

Review posted March 31, 2011.

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