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Medusa Uploaded
by Emily Devenport
Tor, QPB, $16.99, 316 pages
Published: May 2018

I have a stack of Emily Devenport's novels on the shelf and they all look intriguing, but I haven't got round to any of them yet. Well, that'll surely change after I read this new one! I appreciate writers doing something different with their writing and this is certainly that. It enthralled me, even as I tried to figure out what it was.

The back cover suggests that it's ''Snowpiercer' meets 'Dexter' ‘on board a generation starship', which is a fair if limiting description. It's all of those things but much more. In fact, there's so much more here that the real question is whether everything is wrapped up properly by the end of the 310 or so pages. It all makes sense in the end on a first time through, but I do expect it to flesh out on further readings because our attention can't be on every one of its many ideas all the way.

Some of these ideas manifest very quickly.

One ties to the boundaries between good and bad and how the two blur because of circumstance. For instance, Oichi explains during the prologue that she's a serial killer, and she certainly murders a bunch of people, but she's promptly built as our heroine rather than an anti-heroine. The 'Dexter' comparisons seem obvious at this point, but they don't last. The first person she kills, Ryan Charmayne, has just killed someone else. Is it murder to kill a murderer? Is it murder to fight back at those who kill you?

Another plays with class. Oichi is what's known on the generation starship called Olympia as a worm, a lower class maintenance worker and servant, who spends much of her time waiting on Executives, the class strongly in charge of society on board ship. Of course, it's Executives whom she starts bumping off in a sort of controlled revolution, each 'accident' a step towards fixing the problems she starts to realise are inherent on the Olympia. In a neat touch, she has different voices depending on the whims of her masters, but she's not a robot.

That said, we're not entirely sure what she is because a further idea ties to what it means to be human. There's a single line just over halfway through the book that completely shakes up our understanding of what's happened thus far. It's a truly fantastic moment and it reminded me of some of Robert A. Heinlein's novels, where he used race subversively, letting us get used to characters whom we no doubt see in our own image until finally pointing out that they're not the same colour as us after all. It's a great way to keep us on the hop and help us empathise.

Another interesting idea springs from this because it looks at mythology and how our understanding warps over time. The people on the Olympia came from the Homeworld, a planet beset by conflict which they escaped in a pair of generation starships to run from the Enemy Clans. Nobody understands why because that was a number of generations ago and nobody on the ship ever set foot on the Homeworld. Through Oichi, we gradually come to realise that an origin story, of the sort that we're used to inherently trusting, is flawed here at best and entirely fabricated at worst.

This Homeworld is either Earth or a planet colonised by humans from Earth, as human culture, especially films and music that we recognise, is woven into the plot. One example of how a disconnect from history and culture changes things is the word 'Machiavellian'. One character sees that name a lot in films in his movie database and assumes that there was 'a great schemer called Machiavellia', which prompts the leads to emulate Lady Machiavellia ongoing. This sort of disconnect is a beginning to something that could build into the myths of the Homeworld.

I should add that not everything I've said thus far is true, because we experience this novel through Oichi, who is unaware of a great deal when we start out and is still unaware of some things when she reaches the finalé. It seems unfair to call her learning process a set of twists, but there are revelations, some of them paradigm shifts. This approach means that we're constantly asking ourselves questions about what we're reading and what this book really is. What game are we really playing here and who are the key players?

Well, there's more than one game, for a start. One of them ties to the Medusa units of the title. The first Medusa shows up when Oichi is murdered in the usual fashion, sucked out of an airlock at the whim of an Executive. It reaches out to her, initially through the omnipresent network connections in her head, and then physically, saving her from death in the void by enfolding her in its tentacled pressure suit of a body. It's quickly suggested that the Medusa units (for there are many) were designed to enhance the occupants of the Olympia and its former sister ship, the Titania, but were hidden away when the Executives realised the democratising threat that they constituted.

What's scary is that I'm just scratching the surface here. It's been a long while since I've read a novel so densely packed with ideas. The 'Jean le Flambeur' trilogy by Hannu Rajaniemi springs to mind on that front, but it's not like this otherwise, as it's also been a long while since I've read a novel so content to avoid what's expected of it. This will be categorised as science fiction, of course, because that's what it is, but it's also a political thriller, a social drama and an espionage yarn, all wrapped up in one woman's revolution. It tells a story that's this big, until it's bigger, then bigger again and bigger still. It retains internal consistency while continuing to reinvent itself over and over again, prompting us to reevaluate it every time it shifts in scale.

I was eager to keep on reading 'Medusa Uploaded', to devour it in a single session to find out where Devenport was taking Oichi (and me too), but it forced me to put it down a number of times so that I could take stock and ready myself for the next stage. Reading that way made it feel like a TV show whose every episode expands the universe in which it unfolds until we're wide-eyed at how deep it actually goes.

Part of me thinks I should re-read it before reviewing. I do have a few questions about details that a second time through ought to answer satisfactorily. However, given the way that it revels in discovery, I'm going to review it now and come back to this review after I re-read to see what I missed. Because I'm missing out a lot! But, in the meantime, at least I can recommend it to you. Highly. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For other books by Emily Devenport click here

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