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Brain Plague

by Joan Slonczewski

US paperback edition

Brain Plague was a pleasant surprise. I've always regarded Joan Slonczewski as one of those authors whom I really ought to read, in the same way that I really ought to eat brussels sprouts. Her novel A Door Into Ocean is an Important Feminist Novel, which in my experience usually translates into Humorless Dystopian Thought Experiment. So I avoided her books, and felt vaguely guilty about it, but not guilty enough to read them. Brain Plague, however, has such a cool premise and defiantly creepy title that I picked it up anyway.

On the far future world of Valedon, Chrysoberyl is a not-quite-starving artist who is offered the chance to host a colony of sentient microbes in her brain. It may sound like an icky way to play landlord, but there are compensations. The "micros" provide their carriers with the mental resources of an entire civilization, not to mention the considerable ego-stroking one gets from playing God to hundreds of thousands of itty bitty intelligent beings.

Chrys's social status changes immediately and drastically, as her fellow micro carriers draw her into their rich and powerful ranks. She can finally afford luxuries like top-of-the-line health care and regular meals, but the socioeconomic whiplash distances her from friends and family and gives her fits of liberal guilt. Slonczewski weaves all sorts of interesting future tech into the backdrop of the social structure, and that held my interest through the angsty bits. The effect on Chrys's art is more gradual. Her art starts out intensely personal and individualistic, but her ego fades out under the influence of the micros and her greater social scope.

There's a lot going on in Brain Plague. Chrys faces danger from rebellious micros within and malignant power-hungry micros without, and the death of her micros' previous host is an ongoing low-key mystery. A few story threads trail off without resolution, but the story hangs together most of the time, and slides by on personality when it doesn't.

I didn't realize until after I finished Brain Plague that it's set in the same loose series as A Door Into Ocean and The Children Star. Enough background is provided through context that it stands just fine on its own, although I was left with a few minor questions. (Like, why is everybody named for various stones? What happens when they run out of stones to name people after?) I look forward to catching up on the Slonczewski backlog. Brain Plague has strong characters, interesting societies, and damn cool ideas; I hope the earlier books are as good.

-- Christina Schulman.
Reviewed in
July 2004

paperback edition
Publisher: Tor
Date: March 2001
ISBN: 0-425-19178-8
Binding: paperback
Pages: 384
Price: US $6.99

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Greg Egan: Axiomatic

Nicola Griffith: Ammonite

Sherri Tepper: Grass
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Jul 2004 / CMS