What is the nature of identity? Is it inherent to each person, making each of us so unique and distinctive that, even if the outside world were entirely stripped away, the individual would exist unchanged? Or are we created by our environment: our circumstances, challenges, and relationships with others?
It's an age-old question, one addressed in science and philosophy as well as in fiction. With her first novel, Solitaire, Kelley Eskridge tosses her hat into this particular ring with elegance and grace. A previous Nebula and James Tiptree finalist with her short fiction, Eskridge already had a good bit of buzz going; with Solitaire, the buzz may swell to a roar.
Plotwise, the novel seems pretty straightforward at first. One Ren "Jackal" Segura, born in the very first second of the unification of the world under a single government -- is known as something called a Hope. Imagine Princess Di, Hillary Clinton, and Owada Masako all rolled into one: the ultimate celebrity, with status, recognition, and influence. As the story opens, this Jackal, whose personal stock rises or falls depending upon her behavior at a social event, arrives after a party immediately after learning something that calls her entire future into question. While she appears to have it all: prestige, popularity, colorful friends, and a devoted (and devastatingly intelligent) lover, Jackal knows that she's living a lie. Then, just as she's trying her hardest to keep it together, a catastrophe occurs, and in the eyes of the world, Jackal Segura has committed a capital crime. Instead of life in prison, she agrees to a virtual solitary confinement, with the understanding that it will shorten her sentence by a significant factor.
What follows definitely makes the setup worth it. Up until this point, the novel reminds one of nothing so much as David Mack's comic-book series Kabuki, which is sort of a cross between La Femme Nikita and My Fair Lady with a grimly cyberpunk-ish view of the corporate world thrown in. Solitaire is convincing, though, because Eskridge draws her characters so deftly that their ambitions, emotions, and pains are believable. If Jackal seems like something of a coddled princess, well, she is, and the fact that Eskridge makes her sympathetic strengthens the story, making the challenges she faces in her virtual prison believable as well.
In the modern world, it's almost impossible to be alone. Technology doesn't so much isolate us, as allow us to enforce our desire for privacy by controlling our contact with others. In the future Eskridge creates, this lack of solitude is even more prevalent, especially for someone like a Hope, next to whom Britney Spears seems like a recluse. Eskridge has mentioned studying life in prison as part of her research for Solitaire, but the novel also brings to mind the experiences of mystical hermits in the Middle Ages. Some of them retreated to caves or huts, or to the tops of tall pillars in the desert, but others inhabited tiny cells in monasteries and castles, within arm's reach of human society but simultaneously cut off. Take that hermit's experience one step further. Imagine a solitary confinement where not only does the door never open, but there's no door at all. Eskridge's imaginative leap here is impressive, and the way she takes us inside Jackal's head, allowing us to witness a fully conscious, self-motivated dissection of a personality, is more impressive still.
It's taught in Buddhism that the self is an illusion, something which has no inherent, independent existence. It's the old tree-falling-in-the-forest question: if a person is removed from the world, and placed in an environment where interaction with other living beings is impossible, does that person still exist? Without our relationships to others, without the ability to affect our environment in any meaningful sense (even Jackal's virtual food, unnecessary since her body is fed intravenously during her confinement, is replenished as soon as she shuts her cupboard door) or to make any mark on the world, how do we know who we are?
It's a question that's usually considered in idle contemplation, but Eskridge takes the reader down to the bone. Although the middle portion of Solitaire consists almost entirely of introspection, the reconfiguration of one person's internal landscape, it's a fascinating journey. Left alone, with only her own thoughts for company, Jackal grows up -- and challenges the boundaries of her virtual prison in unprecedented ways.
Judging by the novel's denouement, Eskridge seems to agree with the notion that the self does not exist in a vaccuum. Alone, it's possible to be as calm and relaxed as a cat napping in a sunbeam, but the true test of the self comes in our interaction with others. Perhaps that's why, of all those medieval mystics, only a few returned to the world to tell people about the insights they'd gleaned during their years of solitude. When Jackal returns to the world, she must cope with her status as a convicted felon, with the details of her crime readily available to the public worldwide. But beyond this, Jackal faces a newfound awareness of those pesky day-to-day irritations that are an inherent feature of co-existing with other humans. This, to put it mildly, makes her life difficult.
She finds a sanctuary, of sorts, among others who have experienced virtual confinement. None have emerged unscathed, although whether Eskridge considers too much solitude unhealthy -- you can make a pretty strong case for it -- or is simply emphasizing the potential pitfalls of experimental technology is an open question; most of these people were pretty messed up before they ever set metaphorical foot in virtual cell. Either way, the conclusion seems to be that no matter what insight or enlightenment you might achieve, it, like the self, cannot exist in a vaccuum. It's only out in the world, with things like traffic and noisy neighbors and the necessity of a paycheck, that such a state of mind can be seen to be useful or effective. If a woman becomes a buddha in a doorless cell, is she really a buddha at all? While this take on the experience of isolation is not without precedent, Eskridge's skillful use of detail, her strong characters and evocative settings, and her ability to take her readers on a spiral path to the innermost depths of an individual mind, and then back out again, make this a fascinating read.
These strengths make up for a few weaknesses. Chief among these is that much of the time, Jackal is a curiously passive character. This changes somewhat, ironically during the period when her ability to actively influence her environment is at its most restricted. It also highlights those times when she does take charge, when her training as a manager and facilitator (a side benefit of reading this novel is that you learn just what it is these people do, exactly) takes over and allows her to control a situation. One hopes that a sequence where Jackal is helpless just when she most needs to take action will prove instructive, but unfortunately it takes place too near the end of the book to be certain. The plot is also somewhat loose, although given the novel's emphasis on internal experience, you may not notice this at first, nor mind it once you do. There are a few loose threads left dangling at the end, some of them compelling enough that I was left hoping there'd be a sequel.
Overall, though, Solitaire isn't just a promising debut; it's a good, solid read. The story is deftly handled, and Eskridge's prose is elegant and smooth. She also excels at controlling when and how both her characters and her readers learn vital information; each bomb drops precisely when and how it's supposed to. That's an impressive achievement, and it bodes well for Eskridge's future books.
Genevieve Williams is a carbon-based lifeform residing in the Pacific Northwest region of the continental United States. Writer, editor, and bookslinger extraordinaire, she's also a Clarion West 2002 graduate with a compulsive passion for the written word.
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