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 width=In the film adaptation of Minority Report (2002), a middle-aged man visits an establishment that provides its customer the service of wish fulfillment through simulation. Unaware that he is in the presence of a police officer, he demands a simulation where he gets to kill his boss, and ends up being admonished by the owner as someone who makes the world a terrible place to live in. While technology has provided individuals with the means to fulfill their desires, the highly controlled criminal justice system of Minority Report, in which crimes are detected through precognition, sinking to the levels of depravity at which a person can commit murder, even in a simulation, is not encouraged by the authorities.

Laura Lam’s Shattered Minds, the second standalone novel set in the world of Pacifica, reverses the above setup. It uses familiar science fiction tropes: a big corporation seeks complete control over society, working in nexus with a corrupt government—and builds a world where a drug named Zeal is used a means of social control. The citizens of Pacifica are free to commit crimes within the Zealscape, a state of lucid dreaming created using a combination of Zeal and VR, and the government will turn a blind eye so long as the arrangement keeps the worst criminals off the streets. While the novel seeks to build a world full of decadence, in which the failure of the criminal rehabilitation system has torn apart a fragile social contract, it falls quite short of achieving that. What we are instead provided with is a banal assortment of characters: a frustratingly underdeveloped antagonist, an antiheroine whose backstory is given out in intrusive and awkwardly placed flashbacks, and a supporting cast whose motivations are exposed with a parsimony that is hardly justified owing to their incongruence with any obvious objectives.

Carina, the antiheroine of the novel, has detailed fantasies about murder. She has had a fallout with her previous employer, Sudice—the aforementioned corporation seeking to control an unsuspecting populace through a futuristic technology—and spends most of her time controlling violent urges with the help of the Zealscape, where she murders criminals made out of figments of her imagination. While Carina’s murderous disposition is repeatedly mentioned, it never appears on the surface to feel enough of a threat; her psychopathic traits instead devolve into self-pity, and her character, never particularly rounded, is further flattened owing to the underdevelopment of this most important aspect of her personality.

Following the murder of a former colleague, who as a last act of redemption contacts her in Zealscape and sends her incriminating evidence against Sudice, Carina joins a band of misfits to bring down the corporation that has ruined countless lives to meet its ambitions. What follows is a half-baked narrative—in which the antagonist Roz makes a few barely threatening appearances, only to disappear into POV chapters composed of her ruminations and flashbacks—of deus ex machinas that seem too easy, and scenes that are stitched together with dialogue and description to fit into a Hollywood blockbuster:

“What’s going on?” she calls back over the din of the guns. She shoots at the last man, and three more enter. Fuck.

“Raf and Charlie have woken up!” Dax yells.


Charlie says something, but Carina can’t hear it over the shots.

“Time to push forward,” Kivon yells. He grips the gun, eyes snagging on hers. Carina is a fellow soldier. In this battle, he’ll have her back and trust her to have his. (p. 207)

“This is too much for me, Mark,” she says. “You placed your bets on the wrong person. I’m only going to let you down.”

“You’re strong as iron, Carina.”

“Iron rusts.”

“Then you will be reforged.” (p. 247)

This isn’t all:

“Hard to keep your head when the person you love is hurt. My only advice is to take that fear and pain and try to turn it into rage.” (p. 349)

Lam’s inability to write good dialogue is further exacerbated by the multiple infodumps delivered using laboured exposition and clichéd references:

“Humans need something concrete to focus their horror. Like Anne Frank’s diary and the Holocaust. Like Lucas Hollander, a five year old boy who died of radiation poisoning and became the poster child of the Great Upheaval.” (p. 258)

The poor plotting and dialogue make Shattered Minds underwhelming. Lam never allows her characters to leave the inhibited space she puts them in; they exist within a constricted setting, and feel separated from the larger world of Pacifica, barely allowing the reader a glimpse into this supposedly decaying culture. The protagonists are never put into a situation that feels truly perilous, and they spend most of the time at their base, conversing with an ease that depicts no tension. This becomes all the more implausible when it becomes clear that the team’s mission is entirely dependent upon the whims of its one member who spends most of the novel fighting drug withdrawal and homicidal tendencies.

To provide for this absence of fully fleshed-out characters and plot, the novel is written entirely in a present tense which dwells reliably upon the minutiae of quotidian life and those endless flashbacks. While it often brings forward a sense of urgency and vividness, in the absence of good writing this voice more often merely serves as a crutch to support a flailing plot.

Shattered Minds stumbles on far too many occasions: a plot that doesn’t move beyond familiar tropes, unskilled and forced prose, indifferent and contradictory characterization, dialogue and actions interrupted by infodumps about Pacifica’s past and its technology (the “replicator,” a device used to process food, clothing, etc. is mentioned almost every time a character sets about to perform daily actions or chores), and a climax in which the stakes are raised only to be lowered immediately. The novel also fails to explore areas that could have otherwise made it an engaging read: how deep has Carina fallen into the abyss of self-destruction? How effective is Zeal as an instrument of control? How complacent can it make the unsuspecting populace? How devastating could the technology that Sudice is seeking so stealthily to introduce be? All these questions are put aside to provide us with a novel that is sometimes fast-paced, but often dull and mundane.

By almost every parameter, Shattered Minds is a subpar and failed novel. It’s unsure of itself, which might have not been a bad thing, had it not seemed too thin, too lacking in texture, and too deliberate to draw the reader in. Most of it is simply dull and overwrought. It might make for a quick read, but hardly an enjoyable one.

Aditya Singh is a writer and illustrator based in New Delhi, India. He has previously reviewed for Mithila Review.

Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
It is probably impossible to understand how transformative all of this could be unless you have actually been on the receiving end.
Some of our reviewers offer recollections of Maureen Kincaid Speller.
Criticism was equally an extension of Maureen’s generosity. She not only made space for the text, listening and responding to its own otherness, but she also made space for her readers. Each review was an invitation, a gift to inquire further, to think more deeply and more sensitively about what it is we do when we read.
When I first told Maureen Kincaid Speller that A Closed and Common Orbit was among my favourite current works of science fiction she did not agree with me. Five years later, I'm trying to work out how I came to that perspective myself.
Cloud Atlas can be expressed as ABC[P]YZY[P]CBA. The Actual Star , however, would be depicted as A[P]ZA[P]ZA[P]Z (and so on).
In the vast traditions that inspire SF worldbuilding, what will be reclaimed and reinvented, and what will be discarded? How do narratives on the periphery speak to and interact with each other in their local contexts, rather than in opposition to the dominant structures of white Western hegemonic culture? What dynamics and possibilities are revealed in the repositioning of these narratives?
a ghostly airship / sorting and discarding to a pattern that isn’t available to those who are part of it / now attempting to deal with the utterly unknowable
Most likely you’d have questioned the premise, / done it well and kindly then moved on
In this special episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, reviews editors Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland introduce audio from a 2018 recording for Jonah Sutton-Morse’s podcast Cabbages and Kings which included Maureen Kincaid Speller discussing with Aisha and Jonah three books: Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, and The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar.
Issue 23 Jan 2023
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Issue 9 Jan 2023
Strange Horizons
2 Jan 2023
Welcome, fellow walkers of the jianghu.
Issue 2 Jan 2023
Strange Horizons
Issue 19 Dec 2022
Issue 12 Dec 2022
Issue 5 Dec 2022
Issue 28 Nov 2022
By: RiverFlow
Translated by: Emily Jin
Issue 21 Nov 2022
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