Watermind opens with a prologue, a delightful set piece nine parts brio and one part genial humor, relating the origins of the neural net that protagonist CJ Reilly discovers in Devil's Swamp near Baton Rouge. It tells of how 144 tiny "mote" computers, each no larger than a diamond chip, deployed in an old-growth forest in Alberta by three graduate students studying the weather, are washed away in a storm and eventually reach the Mississippi:
The Father of Waters bedazzled them. Within its fluent grip streamed nearly 400,000 tons of refuse from half the continental US and part of Canada. The motes waltzed along with pacemakers, depth-finders, baby monitors, and electronic keys. They relayed signals from lost hearing aids and sunken memory cards. GPS channel buoys lent them guidance. As they snapped up data, their shared memory burgeoned. (p. 12)
The prologue sets the stage for the main narrative, as prologues are supposed to do. But once I'd begun reading the main text, I realized that I had seen all that Buckner was going to give us of the prologue's playful prose style and perspective. How I longed to hear more about the oddball amalgam at the center of the novel's narrative—about its experiences, its "bonds" with bacteria, chemicals, and active chips of all sorts. How I longed for a closer glimpse of the familiar morphing into the alien, accomplished through the forging of unlikely alliances and evolving not so much as a reaction to stimuli as a coordination of the resources it acquires with each new assimilation. Learning, for this riparian neural net, clearly involves more than the stimulus-response motor assumed to drive most intelligence and, as such, it would have made a fascinating, and likely playful and entertaining, protagonist of a science fiction story.
The narrative proper, however, shifting into a style that shoulders the burden of conventional tropes and descriptions, presents the viewpoints of its human characters only and thus treats the neural net as the inscrutable, opaque other. For the novel's lead character, CJ Reilly, the other is a mirror of herself and therefore a fantastically intelligent (male) child to be indulged and attended to and never held responsible for damage it causes. (CJ, while female herself, is what feminists have long called a "male-identified" woman.) For CJ's employer, rationalist Roman Sacony, it is an enemy, a destructive killer that must be either contained or destroyed. For CJ's Creole boyfriend, Max Pottevents, it is djab dile, a malevolent being of possibly supernatural power. For all of them, though, the neural net is opaque, requiring careful observation, copious speculation, and constant parsing. And so the narrative firmly keeps the reader positioned on the side of the human characters, outside the neural net, objectifying it.
Such objectification, of course, is what hard science fiction often offers: a story in which scientists study and act upon the object of the story's focus. (A recent example of a neural net viewed as an opaque and inscrutable intelligence is Maureen McHugh's 2008 short story "Kingdom of the Blind.") While Watermind offers some of the characteristics of the hard science fiction novel that tells such a story, the novel's shape is ultimately that of the technothriller, which subordinates its science fictional elements to the pacing and narrative choices of a disaster tale. At the outset of the story, though, when CJ and Quimicron, the company she works for, independently discover the neural net in Devil's Swamp, the tale still reads as science fiction.
CJ is a rich, young, white doctoral student at MIT who, following her father's suicide, dropped out of school and hit the road. Slumming, she's now hanging with people (mostly of color) desperate enough to hire themselves out at an hourly wage to clean up hazardous chemical spills for a Baton Rouge corporation. There are two possible reasons a rich young chemist would needlessly expose herself to such dangerous and backbreaking work as cleaning up a toluene spill in Devil's Swamp: mad, passionate love for her nonwhite boyfriend, Max, who needs the work to pay for his daughter's medical expenses; or an urge to self-destruction. We realize almost at once that CJ has no interest in keeping her job (or in Max keeping his) when she wanders away from the work site to smoke a joint. Max, establishing the pattern for his relation to CJ throughout the book, follows after her out of concern for her well-being. When he stops her from touching a water moccasin, she mocks him. Repeatedly, throughout the book, she demonstrates total indifference for her own safety, and thus it's all of a piece when she removes her protective gear. "Child," Max says, "you gonna get splash in the eye. Get eye cancer" (p. 17). Her response? "Don't call me a child." The narrative tells us she is twenty-two, only three years younger than Max, but it's no wonder that Max calls her "Child." Although we are informed that CJ has an awesome I.Q., her emotional age is that of a young child caught in the terrible twos. Max, though he lacks her I.Q. and is a high school dropout, is a responsible, mature adult. But because he's putty in her hands, this translates to his continually following her around, trying to please and protect her (even if he so mistrusts her that he instinctively conceals his daughter's existence from her).
Propelled by CJ's recklessness, the narrative re-introduces us to the neutral net in its opaque, objectified form. Moving ever farther from the work site, CJ comes upon a pond that is covered in ice—this though the ambient temperature of the air is hot enough to make the workers in the haz-mat suits sweat. CJ recklessly ventures out onto the ice and lights up a joint. Max, true to the pattern, begs her not to do it, then asks her if she's mad at the whole world, pointing out, "This pond might blow up, kill us both. You don' mind. They fire us for smoking weed. You don' mind" (p. 19). The pond doesn't blow up, but first her iPod is claimed by the ice, and then CJ herself is sucked under.
The pliable ice slid down her throat and gagged her. Freezing wet jelly fingers probed her ears, her nostrils. The ice oozed through her thin shirt and slid under her clothes. She felt it penetrating her esophagus, her vagina, her urethra and rectum. Her heart walloped. Ice slivered under her fingernails and pressed her corneas. Everything squeezed. (p. 20)
Max manages to rescue her and wants to get her to the hospital. CJ lies to him and says she'll drive herself there, but convinces herself that she can't go to the hospital because, given Quimicron's zero tolerance for drugs policy, it would put Max's job at risk (as though her leading him off to smoke a joint hadn't already done that). She decides to decontaminate herself and do a chemical analysis of the fluid that has collected in her boots.
Significantly, immediately after Max pulls CJ out of the pond, the narrative gives us a section of free indirect discourse that includes the sentence "Her personal evil loomed under the surface, churning her shallows and troubling her depths"—as if to make sure we know that the neural net and CJ share an affinity. Since we've already seen evidence that the "something wrong with her" is emotional immaturity and we know from the prologue that the neural net is very young, we're being tipped to favor an interpretation of the invasion of CJ's body as the behavior of an other sharing CJ's faults (copiously specified during the passage of free indirect discourse).
Unable to find a commercial lab in Baton Rouge available to the public, CJ cons her way into Quimicron's lab (which is deserted because its staff analyst is out with lymphoma), oblivious to the fact that the lab is kept under surveillance by the security staff who are watching her every move. (CJ's operating assumption, of course, is that everyone in the world but herself is an idiot.) Her analysis reveals that the sample she collected is pure water, uncontaminated by any of the chemicals known to be polluting Devil's Swamp. And this pure water changes state right there in the lab, becoming a gel, seemingly at will. So while the first question she posed about the pond was what kind of chemical reaction could form ice in hot weather, the second is what kind of chemical reaction could purify toxic chemicals into clean water, and the third, where all the heat went when the chemical reaction took place. By coincidence, CJ's dissertation project had involved working on a cheap method for water purification. Caught up in the fantasy of benevolently and heroically rescuing the clean-water-starved Third World with the discovery of a cheap method for purifying water, she decides she has to do whatever it takes to keep Quimicron ignorant of the potential in their previously toxic pond. She adopts the attitude that the "ice" (which the reader suspects is the neural net) belongs to her and that Quimicron must not be allowed to "steal" it from its rightful owner.
Unbeknownst to CJ, the "ice" has killed a migrant worker, putting the corporation into crisis mode. This death occurs offstage, which makes it feel a lot less real and urgent to the reader than CJ's analysis of the fluid, her speculations, and her conclusions, all of which are related in immediate detail. Quimicron puts the pond under guard, to make sure no one else has an accident there, but of course CJ, trailing an anxious, nursemaiding Max, insists on going out into the swamp in the middle of the night (something which anyone who has ever spent time in rural southern Louisiana will know is a scary, dangerous proposition, even without a neural net lying in wait). Naturally, they're busted by Quimicron security. It is at this point that the narrative comes to a crossroads.
Hitherto, the story has been hard science fiction. The reader lucky enough not to have read the publisher's packaging might have been imagining that CJ and Quimicron will race (perhaps separately) to figure out the key to water purification and in the process enter into a kind of First Contact with the neural net whose origin story charmed us in the prologue. But after CJ is busted, the CEO, Roman Sacony, enters the story, and the formula of the thriller makes its first, tentative appearance.
The narrative offers us several triangles; of these, the most important is that of CJ, Roman Sacony, and the neural net. Roman's relation to the neural net is entirely hostile; he calls it "the colloid" and characterizes it as a "lethal material" that needs to be "neutralized." From the beginning, his mode is damage control: he has no doubt he's in a thriller. He speaks of the danger of public panic that quarantining the area might provoke, and CJ is "confused": she still thinks she's in a science fiction novel. In short, he co-opts her, asking her to help study "the material" in order to plan a "sensible response."
The narrative then shifts into a fast-paced thriller in which Roman attempts to contain the neural net, but the neural net in response keeps growing and spreading and learning new tricks, and inexorably travels until finally it threatens New Orleans. Downing amphetamines as casually as Dr. Greg House downs Vicodin, Roman never sleeps. CJ spends days on a boat, hiding out, never apparently having to piss or drink water or eat. (Roman, of course, gets to piss off the side of his chartered yacht, but he's the CEO.) The pace for most of the book is frantic and feverish, as though the narrative itself has taken to downing amphetamines, and the neural net takes on the role of monster, a monster CJ identifies with. Through it all CJ constantly broods about her mother's leaving her father (and her) when she was two: making certain that we understand that her emotional immaturity, stuck in "the terrible twos," is her mother's fault. The neural net-become-monster operates just like CJ behind the wheel of her Rover. Getting caught in a traffic jam, CJ simply drives on the median strip—provoking ire from the other drivers.
Why did these citizen vigilantes try to enforce stupid traffic rules? She wasn't hurting them. Traffic should flow like the Internet, with every data packet finding its own quickest path. Cars should come equipped with artificial intelligence—to make up for all the brainless drivers. When her right turn came, she had to cut off a red Honda and swerve through a hail of horn blasts. (pp. 26-7)
This passage could as well describe how the neural net behaves once it gets out into the Mississippi, and CJ is determined (with brief reversals as momentary doubts arise when people are killed) to defend the rightness of its doing so.
By choosing to make the neural net expand and increase in power and travel out into the world at breakneck pace, the narrative opts for the thriller plot over the science fiction story. It lets us know that contact with the other—the "Watermind," as the neural net comes to be called—can't be undertaken with care and deliberation (in the laboratory, for instance), but must be dealt with as a freakish force of nature with the power and heedlessness of a hurricane. It must either be killed altogether or wreak unending havoc and destruction on the world. There's something peculiar about the narrative's assigning the rational science fiction plot to the unstable CJ and the out-of-control breathlessness of the thriller plot to Roman Sacony, who is the most self-consciously rational person in the novel. If the narrative had hewed to the science fiction story instead of haring off into a thriller, establishing Contact with the Watermind and learning about it would have logically been intertwined with CJ's coming to terms with her emotional problems (including the loss of her father) and maturing alongside the Watermind. But that would be another novel.
I suspect many readers will enjoy Watermind, regardless of these narrative choices and CJ's childish personality. The story is engaging, the characters competently drawn (if, with the exception of CJ, a tad stereotypical), and their relations intricate enough to be interesting. And though the prose style in the main narrative is not exactly playful itself, the narrative reverberates with the playful ironies inherent in its story. I also liked that two of the three main characters are nonwhite. I found Max's constant anxiety and care of CJ irritating and implausible, though. Very few people are as selfless and lacking in resentment as Max is, and given the continuing virulence of racism in Louisiana, I found the narrative's lack of awareness of what that means for mixed-race couples like CJ and Max seriously undermining, especially in the sections related through Max's viewpoint. In short, Max came off more as a Mammy stereotype than a lover. I liked the narrative's positioning of Roman as both CEO and Argentinian, both privileged and racially other and thus constantly aware of the white people around him as Anglos (though granted, the characterization tends toward the stereotypical, something the thriller formula just about demands of its narrative). I wondered at the lack of Cajuns in a novel set in Baton Rouge, where they are thick on the ground. I loathed the narrative's depiction of two of the three—count them!—women characters other than CJ as sexually determined: the chemist Yue—a.k.a. the "Queen Bitch"—as a "dried up" bitter woman who has never gotten over having been sexually used and discarded by Roman; and Elaine, the personal assistant of the plant manager as the manager's "buxom blond" mistress. (The third woman character, Rayette, Quimicron's sys-admin, is a mere caricature of a religious nutcase, a creature of the thriller formula.) And I really wished the author hadn't privileged a trope over realism when she chose to have the Creole and Mexican workers universally embrace the notion that the Watermind was a "loa."
Earlier I referred to the playful ironies inherent in the thriller (but not the science fiction) version of this story and its implicit reference to films like The Blob and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. I'll conclude with the observation that what could have been written as a hard science fiction novel relating a First Contact with the Watermind or exploring potential (if perhaps a bit far-fetched) consequences of polluting the environment with the cast-off debris of our electronic revolution would probably have had to eschew the pacing and possibly (for anything not meant to be satirical) even the clichés of the thriller. The prose style of a work is inextricable from its content. And so, two-thirds of the way into the novel, we come to Roman Sacony's reflections:
He leaned on the rail and contemplated the water. Somewhere below that cloudy surface, his enemy lurked. He knew he had not created this beast. He hadn't filled this northern river with excrementos. But he understood that life was not founded on justice. He was the one who stood here now, defending this Anglo city. He, a Latino. This enemy had chosen him. If he refused its challenge, he knew that something inside him would sink and drown and never surface again.
So he would catch the beast and roast it with electricity. His attack might knock out power all along the waterfront, and he would have to reach deep in his pockets to pay the lawyers who would defend him. No matter. He would not back down. As long as he walked and breathed, he would not let this violador win.
Seven feet below, hiding in her Viper, CJ heard him groan. (193)
In short, M.M. Buckner's Watermind is fun, if utterly frivolous and a bit wearing in the way prolonged amphetamine use is.
L. Timmel Duchamp is the author of Love's Body, Dancing in Time, the five-volume Marq'ssan Cycle, and a lot of short fiction and essays. She has been a finalist for the Nebula and Sturgeon awards and short-listed several times for the Tiptree. She lives in Seattle.