Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Review: Totaled by Kary English

I liked this story a good deal better than I liked Turncoat. Whereas the former was all technical detail and short on interior views of the protagonist, this one is nearly all internal. The writing has a decent level of skill, which keeps the necessarily tight point of view from becoming boring.

Totaled is a literal brain-in-a-vat story. Our protagonist is Maggie Hauri, a neurologist who is working on a bio-net, a brain/computer interface, when she is in a car accident and ends up, due to a lovely little clause in the contract she signed with her employer, as an experimental brain in her own lab.

Maggie is a clear and compelling character. She seems to have signed the contract allowing her use this way without ever really believing such a thing could happen or giving it much thought - not unusual for a young and healthy person. She seems to twig to what's happening to her very quickly, and with a high degree of certainty, which seems a little odd to me. If my last memory is of a car accident, and now I can't seem to feel, see or hear, my first thought is going to be coma, or dying, not brain-in-vat. I also think it's a bit of a missed opportunity for dawning horror as Maggie figures out what's really going on - because she already knows. The only horror of this aspect is discovering that she's in her own lab, instead of someone else's - and that's not really horror, because knowing the person working with her brain gives her an opportunity for true communication she would otherwise have lacked. There's a frisson of horror for Randy, her electronics specialist partner, when he discovers whose brain he's working with, and that she's conscious. That's actually a nice little moment, with the dichotomy between Maggie's happiness that she's making contact, and Randy's horror as he realizes his specimen is actually his lab partner.

I don't think Maggie's deterioration is handled as well as the earlier parts of the story. Other than a couple of brief mentions, she doesn't think much about the eventual decay of her brain until it starts happening. One of the results of this is that the first mention of the loss of speech function happens in the same sentence where her internal speech starts going wonky. I would have strongly preferred to have the two parts separated, since having her go 17+ weeks without once thinking about decay in speech, only to think about it literally the second it starts to fail (without her noticing the failure), makes it feel artificial. "Motor functions fail always first, then speech. I guess I'm luck lucky not to have, not to have any of those." That's also a pretty dramatic first break of internal speech. Maggie's decline is then very rapid from there. It's not handled badly, but the timing feels off. Maggie is tired, it's hard to think, she's ready to let go - but I didn't get a visceral feel for that readiness.

Ultimately, I feel like Totaled could have used at least one more good editing pass - there's so much that's good about it, but also several missed opportunities, or slightly off moments of timing and emphasis. I like a lot about Kary English's writing though, and I'd be more than happy to read other short stories by her.

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