In Andrea Hairston's Mindscape (her debut novel, and a 2006 Philip K. Dick award nominee) humanity is confronted with an inescapable, incomprehensible phenomenon, specifically a "blood red cloud of unknown material" from outer space which engulfs the planet in the 21st century, and divides the Earth's surface into isolated Zones, linked only by seasonal corridors through the "Barrier" that the cloud creates.
Science fiction tends to gravitate toward the Big Moment When The Change Happens, but Hairston's novel picks up the story over a century afterward, when what had formerly been momentous has long since become boring for most of those going about their everyday lives. (Appropriately, the Barrier appears undramatic at ground level, "just geysers of smoke and shadows, milky undulations stretching across the horizon and up beyond the sky. A traveler from the twenty-first century might have taken it for a harmless fog-bank", p. 19).
This does not, however, mean that people have simply moved on. Quite the contrary. History as we knew it did not go away, but it certainly stopped when the Barrier came to Earth. Neither the technological Singularity nor global warming ever rate a mention in Mindscape, there’s no reference to the War on Terror or to any superpower clashes—and the road to the stars seems to have been barred, perhaps forever. The dating system in use in the story reflects this, counting forward from the year the Barrier arrived. Additionally, despite all the time that’s passed, the Barrier remains an epistemological black hole, almost willfully resisting investigation by human scientists, the data collected by their instruments (when they pick anything up at all) tending to be frustratingly nonsensical.
The event also created strikingly different cultures among the inhabitants of the three populated Zones, each of which represent a different vision of life: mystical New Ougadougou; liberal-scientific Paradigma, possessed of high technology, but suffering a grave resource crisis, and led by the Machiavellian Prime Minister Jocelyn Williams; and the horrific Los Santos, a squalid, illiterate, racist gangster state, the economy of which is heavily based on organ trading and the production of films, mostly violent pornography and glorified snuff films starring conscripted "Extras."
These polities have spent much of the last century fighting each other, but as the book begins they are signing an Interzonal Peace Treaty supposed to end that fighting, alleviate the worst human rights abuses, and pave the way for cooperation between them in building a better world. Predictably, the new order that the treaty is supposed to usher in does not develop smoothly, elements in every Zone resisting as far as they can, and in some cases even hoping to topple it. The thugs who dominate Los Santos do not want to clean up their act, as the Treaty requires them to do. The people of Paradigma fear the gangsterism of Los Santos, and what they regard as the superstition of Ougadougou (though they depend on the latter's agricultural products and medical services, and crave their natural resources). The inhabitants of New Ougadougou, just as appalled by Los Santos, are equally wary of Paradigma, since in their eyes it similarly expresses a "ruthless disregard for what is most valuable in life," and makes them fear for their own culture's "contamination" by that disregard.
That resistance is highly visible, and violent, from the beginning; the treaty's architect, Celestina Xa Irawo of New Ougadougou, is felled in a hail of bullets in Mindscape’s opening scene. This does not put an end to the treaty, but it is not the last time the opposition makes its presence felt, and it is still around four years later, fighting Celestina's protégé and "Spirit Daughter," Elleni Xe Celest, as she attempts to realize her mentor's vision. Equally crucial, Elleni happens to be one of the rare few who can open their own corridors through the Barrier. Now she begins to have perplexing visions when she interacts with it, and that includes her receiving messages from the dead that hint at a secret history of her Zone far more disturbing than she had ever dared imagine. And as it turns out, she is not the only one seeing strange behavior in the Barrier. Elleni's consort, Ray Valero, starts having visions of his own. Meanwhile Los Santos film director Aaron Dunkelbrot, in the midst of shooting the action series that he hopes will save his company (in the midst of coping with a feud with rivals angry over his own political entanglements), believes he has seen an alien spacecraft come out of the Barrier and whisk Celestina away from her own cross-over ceremony.
Hairston's premise, consequently, combines two long-standing science fiction traditions—the plumbing of the human reaction to the unknown and inscrutable, and the cultural clash between radically different, isolated cultures. That rarely attempted combination is part of the book's interest, but each of those kinds of story has its strengths and weaknesses, and unfortunately the latter are more prominent this time around. In particular, this sort of culture clash story tends to be susceptible to extreme, simplistic developments of ideas at the expense of plausible extrapolation, or compelling, three-dimensional world-building. The case of the irredeemable Los Santos aside, the cleft between technological, rationalist Paradigma, and "human scale" Ougadougou (reminiscent of so much utopian/dystopian science fiction, and in recent decades, feminist science fiction in particular, like Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed, Joanna Russ's The Female Man, or Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time) falls at least partway into that trap.
As is also the case in many such narratives, despite the variety of viewpoints on display, the author all too often presents only one of these as "correct," which here undermines Hairston's use of multiple perspectives. Indeed, readers who found a college seminar in literary theory tough to sit through are likely to be put off by the novel's sensibility, with even those more sympathetically inclined to Hairston's views likely to find her preachy at times. Lawanda Kitt—Paradigma's ambassador to Los Santos, there on a nation-building mission—in particular has a tendency to lecture others around her, and in the process, the reader as well.
There are also some inconsistencies in Hairston's execution. The portions of the book narrated by Kitt, notably, were intellectually problematic for me, given her self-definition as an ethnic "throwback." While the idea of such throwbacks is certainly plausible, that they would actually succeed in capturing another era's vernacular—as Kitt presumably does with Black English—seems doubtful (and left me especially confused given Hairston's interest in postcolonial issues). There were also anachronisms that seemed conceptually out of place, especially given the novel's multicultural, African-influenced perspective, as when characters more than once refer to the whole world as having become like the Third World. (Given that the vast majority of humanity today lives in the Third World, this seemed an awfully First World perspective, and one would expect that the usage would have long since become obscure by that point anyway.)
The largest of these problems are relieved, however, by a certain amount of nuance. While Hairston strongly favors New Ougadougou, she is careful not to idealize it. Many of its people prove to be closed-minded, and some of the skeletons in its closet are horrific. The Zones themselves also offer their fair share of the sheer strangeness readers have come to expect in their fictional worlds, and the darkness with which the inhabitants live comes through clearly. The bleak, flashy, brutal, often surreal future(s) Hairston depicts have some of the feel of cyberpunk, particularly William Gibson's brand of it, the psychic mindscapes referenced in the title of the book reminiscent of cyberspace as it appeared in his Sprawl novels. (The Barrier, however, made me think more of John Shirley.)
More importantly, Hairston proves herself a capable storyteller in this book. There are aspects I could have done without, to be sure. Some passages which seemed to be cuts to past events turned out just to be visions instead, which can be confusing the first time one meets them, without this particular choice of presentation adding much. More broadly, the complex premise, in which the elaborate plot is driven by a fictional politics, is not always a smooth fit with Hairston's decision to offer a lived-in future, and Mindscape takes too long to get the essentials established. (There are also details which never do become clear—like how the Zones managed to fight those wars despite the presence of the Barrier, or how all of them managed to retain a recognizably modern technological base, tweaked with advanced biotechnology—though these are background rather than key to the events of the narrative.) This made for a slower start than I would have liked, but the narrative picks up steam after the first third so, and becomes considerably more interesting as it progresses. As is so often the case in stories where a confrontation with the unknown is central, the conclusion does not offer all the answers a reader might hope for, but it does succeed in bringing all the threads together. In the end, this goes quite some way in compensating for the book's flaws, and the result was for me a surprisingly satisfying read.
Nader Elhefnawy is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Literature at the University of Miami for the 2007-08 year. His articles and reviews of science fiction have appeared in several publications, including the New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation, the Internet Review of Science Fiction, and Tangent Online.