The Many Selves of Katherine North

The Many Selves of Katherine North - Emma GeenHave you ever wondered what it would be like to be a tiger, the mightiest beast in the jungle? Or a majestic eagle, soaring over mountains with consummate ease? Perhaps you’d just like to be a dolphin, swimming merrily through the open ocean with a pod of playmates.

Kit North has been all of these things and more. It’s her job.

Kit works for ShenCorp, a startup company that grew out of a research lab at the University of Bristol and is still based in offices at the top of Park Street. Their primary work is zoological research through phenomenautic projection. There are two main areas of scientific activity here. The first is the ability to grow ResExtendas (Ressies), artificial animal bodies that have most of the physical characteristics of the real thing but are not, themselves, alive. The other is the projection of human consciousness into those bodies so that the researcher can see the world through the senses of the Ressy and, with any luck, mingle with natural populations. It is, if you like, the ultimate hide.

As a phenomenaut, Kit’s job is to become an animal and find out how it operates in the world. How important is it to have a sense of smell far beyond normal human imagination? How do social interactions between animals work? There’s a huge amount of valuable research to be done, and that is all the more important as so many of the Earth’s animal species are on the verge of extinction. Kit works closely with Buckley Maurice, her Neuro, the scientist whose job it is to monitor her projection, record her observations and activities, and make sure that she can Come Home to her Original Body at the end of the experiment.

Kit’s primary specialism is with vulpines. She is helping ShenCorp understand the lives of urban foxes – where they go, what they do, what do they eat? She has even, in her fox life, adopted an orphan cub, whom she calls Tomoko. She knows enough about fox life now to teach the youngster to hunt and scavenge. She and Buckley have written some ground-breaking papers off the back of this.

Of course great advances in science don’t come easily. There have been a few problems along the way. ShenCorp recruits phenomenauts as teenagers because young people’s brains are much more plastic and able to cope with the stresses of projection into animal bodies. Mostly they don’t last very long in the job. Continuous psychological monitoring ensures that they suffer no permanent damage, but many of them have to retire after only a few years in the role. It’s for their own good. Kit, with seven years under her belt, is the most experienced phenomenaut in the company.

That’s because she has learned how to be careful. She knows how to hide herself, to not give anything away. It pays to be cautious around humans. They might leave food out for you one day, but turn on you the next. They can’t be trusted.

One of the least trustworthy of the humans is Mr. Hughes, the man who manages ShenCorp now that its founder, Professor Shen, has taken an extended sabbatical. Mr. Hughes has big plans for the company. Scientific research is not very profitable. Hughes thinks that the projection technology has lots of commercial potential. He’s relying on his most experienced team to make his plans work. What this means for Kit and Buckley is not clear. Kit thinks that something bad is being planned. She’s also worried about whether, if it comes down to it, Buckley will be loyal to her, or to the company. He is, after all, human.

Bloomsbury is marketing The Many Selves of Katherine North as literary fiction, aiming at the same market that lapped up Station Eleven. The book is, however, a solid piece of science fiction. Emma Geen confesses in an afterword that she may not have always got animal abilities right. That’s because, after reading a ton of academic papers, she couldn’t always find a consensus among the scientists. In effect the book is cyberpunk, but cyberpunk with a strong environmentalist tinge to it. It is also beautifully written, and perfectly passes muster in its literary mufti.

Emma is one of the products of the Bath Spa University creative writing program where Colin Harvey studied. Jack Wolf has also been involved with them, and of course many of their graduates go into other fields of literature as well. I’m impressed with what they are turning out. And I am really impressed with this book. Don’t miss out on it just because it isn’t being marketed at us.

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