Shattered Minds by Laura Lam

Shattered Minds
Laura Lam
Tor, 400 pages
Review by Eris Young

In a future North American West Coast ruled behind the scenes by a sinister corporation called Sudice, neurological experiments are conducted on criminals and drug addicts: people the company think no one will miss. One of these addicts is Carina, a neuroprogrammer and former Sudice employee whose dark past and violent urges have increasingly forced her to escape into a drug-induced virtual reality.

When a former colleague contacts Carina with encrypted evidence that could lead to Sudice’s downfall, Carina has no choice but to team up with a group of hackers and try to bring down the company that destroyed her life. It is her work with these hackers that will eventually help her start to heal, but will the danger Carina poses to others prove too great?

Laura Lam’s Shattered Minds is a cleverly imagined piece of cyberpunk fiction that renders a startling future in intimate but bleak detail. The world of Shattered Minds is one where the omnipresence of technology gives rise to moral complications and social dynamics that would never occur to to most of us today. For example, the rich and famous of Pacifica cover themselves completely, for fear of being cloned from a stray piece of DNA, and ‘school’ consists merely of downloading information directly into students’ brains.

Lam fully integrates technology into the plot as well: throughout Shattered Minds technology seems to create as many problems as it solves, forcing the protagonists into less a game of cat-and-mouse than an outright cold war, in which the side with better tech wins.

The most interesting aspect of Lam’s world-building was the way she talks about mind, memory and dreams: as data to be analysed, stored, recorded and overwritten. The idea that human minds and personalities could be so well integrated with external data systems that they are expandable and, more importantly, mutable, is deeply unsettling. At one especially chilling point in the book, Lam describes a character’s personality changing as a result of an experiment in, essentially, mind control. The process is described from this character’s own perspective: they are forced to watch, powerless, as they are transformed into a kind of synthetic sociopath.

Lam plays with the idea of thought-as-data deftly and deeply, and takes it as far as it will go: with the technology available to Sudice and the world at large, what’s to stop someone rewriting another person’s entire personality, or even one’s own? This was the story’s most powerful dimension.

The cast of characters in Shattered Minds is also as diverse as should be expected from a book set in the far future, most notable in the character of Dax, a transgender man who was born and raised in the North American Shoshone tribe.

I readily admit that I tend to approach books featuring transgender characters (almost always written by cisgender authors) with more trepidation than excitement. I was unsure how Dax’s character would be drawn and I was afraid he’d fall victim to one of the many, nearly always tragic, stereotypes of a trans character.

But I found Dax to be intricately and sensitively drawn, and was relieved to see that while his gender identity—actualised that much more easily in a world where body modification is the norm—informs his personality, history and interactions with the other characters, it is not the be-all end-all of his personhood. Dax is a multi-dimensional character with a complex relationship to the other protagonists, especially Carina, that contributes substantially to both the plot and Carina’s development.

I’m less sure (and less qualified to talk about) how Dax’s Native-Americanness plays into his character. I did at times feel that it was a bit extraneous, a box ticked in the name of diversity. However there’s a fine line between richness of character and outright stereotype, and Lam walks this line delicately. Anyway, why should Dax not be Native? White is not—and should not be—default. It’s reasonable for Dax to be Native American, but it’s also reasonable that Lam point it out explicitly. After all we don’t live in a world where a reader is likely to assume a character is Native American if it’s not mentioned outright. In Dax, Lam is representing one of a number of cultural groups who are easily elided; Indigenous cultures are often assumed to be ‘archaic’ or even extinct, so to see Shoshone culture represented in a sci-fi novel, in however small a way, strikes a distinctly hopeful note.

The concepts in Shattered Minds are inventive and convincing. Lam has created, in Pacifica, a startlingly believable extrapolation of our current world, in which technology is increasingly integrated into everyday life. In doing so, she questions the true nature of the qualities that make us human.

This review was originally published in Shoreline of Infinity issue 9.