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Full Immersion coverIn this autobiographical SF horror novel by Gemma Amor, Magpie is a woman experiencing amnesia because of a past trauma connected to her journey through motherhood. Magpie seeks help from an experimental program run by the experts and researchers known as The Boss and Evans. The program uses virtual reality as part of its therapeutic treatments. However, when unpredictability threatens to unravel the very seams of the carefully constructed program and alter its coding, both Magpie and the Control Room team monitoring her must face their greatest fears. Full Immersion explores the unreliability of memory, the detrimental effects trauma can have on our connections and relationships with others, the corruption of science, and the darkness of motherhood, all in one—well, immersive—narrative.

Amor employs a masterful use of the omniscient narrator to introduce eeriness and induce growing dread and fear by highlighting things that only the readers can see and that the characters are unaware of. There is tension even as characters exchange casual banter in relaxed states. Even in these moments of lull, Amor creates in us a fear for the characters and of the danger quickly approaching. Indeed, rather than placing readers at ease, Amor first creates a humorous undertone at the onset of the novel before fabricating a frightening turn when we realize just how dangerous the circumstances are, how irresponsible the Control team is. The novel exposes the inhumanity and selfishness of humans operating under the guise of utilitarian values, especially with regard to the treatment of vulnerable individuals—those in pain, those suffering. These individuals are sometimes treated like lab rats, performers, their trauma a show to everyone but themselves.

At its heart, the novel is about motherhood and its difficulties, the warping capabilities of giving birth, exhaustion and desperation, and the strain these put on the mother. Amor presents the fractured memories that the Control team are seeking to pull out of Magpie in snippets, in brackets, where Magpie recalls only the strongest of them—ones she wants to repress and avoid—and this makes us question whether there is such a thing as being truly ready to face the darkness of our pasts. Dark memories and trauma are not things easily confronted or shared. In the course of the novel, Magpie prepares herself to face the truth of her trauma after prolonged repression, the blocking of pain in self-defense, but the weight of her physical and emotional scars is often difficult to bear, much less reclaim. Memory is powerful, and Magpie shows us this in the ways her memory fills in the gaps she is missing.

In the novel, trauma becomes a physical manifestation, Silhouette: a lingering shadow in the background that threatens to break into the foreground, and sometimes does. Amor highlights the way memories come to us unbidden, even unwelcome or threatening, and how they are often out of order, foggy. To face them is to reconnect with our past selves, to reflect on them, reclaim what has been lost, left behind, forgotten over time with age. And sometimes that recollection is exactly what we need. In Full Immersion, Magpie learns to live life with knowledge of her past. Through the program, Magpie can explore her thoughts, her mind, and herself removed from external stress, to reflect on herself without worrying about others—to fully immerse herself. But what the novel shows us is the unpredictability of science and also the unpredictability of the human mind—how it’s often uncontrollable, unimaginable.

Full Immersion presents us not only with internal horror but also with external horrors, too, in the form of the scientific community. There is a failure in healthcare and with the care of mothers after giving birth, and, though well-meaning, these are also fields that may hold great corruption. The initial intention of The Boss and Evans is to provide help for those who need their support. The Boss holds utilitarian values, intending to sacrifice Magpie for what she believes is the greater good. But beneath these virtuous thoughts, there is potential for malpractice and irresponsibility, and The Boss also considers her work to be a path to fame, wealth, and the glory of innovation, discovery, and success.

Science is often seen as reliable, controllable, but in Amor’s novel, it is exposed as something that can sometimes be unpredictable, much like humans. Late in the novel, Magpie seems physically healthy when the nurses check her vitals, but what remains broken is something unseen from the surface, something psychological. Similarly, The Boss and Evans represent the two sides of science and scientists: the side that desires everything to be logical, controlled, and the other side, which allows for evolution, the unexplained, the knowledge that things can break free from prediction. Whereas Evans fears how Magpie is altering the virtual therapy program, The Boss refuses to acknowledge this. But karma does not stray far.

At the end of Full Immersion, we discover that the ways in which we bury our past, and how we un-bury it in the present, more often than not provide the means for those suppressed memories to find their way out of our minds. Amor shows us the ways our bodies remember, even when our brains don’t wish to, or refuse to. Like Silhouette, we all have our own stickmen, the skeletons we keep in our closets—the following shadow that haunts us, clawing inside, waiting to be freed. The dark creations of our minds threaten to overshadow our most joyous memories, make villainous what is innocent. Sometimes those who can help most might not be the professionals, but those who know us best. And sometimes, those people are ourselves.

Ai Jiang is a Chinese Canadian writer and an immigrant from Fujian. She draws on cultures and landscapes of the lands she has walked for inspiration. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Dark, Hobart Pulp, and Jellyfish Review, and from Haunted Waters Press, among others. Find her on Twitter @AiJiang_ and online.
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2 Oct 2023

How did we end up so far east, on the flanks of a cold beach? You told me you always wanted to see the Pelagio, ever since you were a child. But your skin was never made for water. You shouldn’t have ever learned to swim.
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as she leaves mortality behind / She always returns to me
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