Mappa Mundi by Justina Robson —
Justina Robson’s hard-science, philosophical novel “Mappa Mundi” — shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award — is occasionally well-written, occasionally clunky, and it’s not as persistently thrilling of a thriller as I’d hoped. It does offer a few morsels of moral, philosophical, and scientific “food for thought” about the nature of (quantum) consciousness, the universe and the self, the soul and the psyche, and individualism and intolerant ideology/the nation-state. Although I can’t blame Robson for failing to acknowledge the problems of intolerance, violence, and the nation-state as products of modernity, I find it troubling that she views these problems as a direct result of the science of the individual. She makes little distinction between culture, nationality, and religion but instead views them all as a product of genetics, psychology, and evolution, failing to recognize that all of these are not only consequences of the individual — or of society as a composite of individuals (which is an arguable point of view in itself) — but also are consequences of history.
She also seems to assume that science and religion are by definition mutually exclusive without letting each side work out its philosophical end of the debate to full potential. Furthermore, she views religion as a detriment to social harmony, using a zealous Turkish Muslim as the first example of her argument. In her Acknowledgements, she credits Native American colleagues for advice on her Native American characters — but she does not refer to Muslims to comment on her Russian/formerly-Muslim semi-antagonist. I’m also getting sick of seeing Turkish Muslim bad guys. With its secular background, and speaking from personal experiences, Turkey is one of the last places I’d use for an example of an over-zealous Muslim — even today, novelists can’t seem to get out of their heads this Orientalist obsession with embodying Islam through “the Sick man of Europe” mentality. Her ignorance on this issue demonstrates that even a “scientific,” “rational-minded” thinker can still perpetuate prejudice.
Despite my initial disagreements with Robson, I read (and enjoyed many parts of) the 500-page thriller, and I give her credit for concluding that, ultimately, we cannot presume to escape our own paradigms (“Memecubes,” what scholar Wael Hallaq refers to as “weltanschauungen”), that our conflicts originate from human nature more than nationality or religion (though there are still problems with that argument). I especially appreciated her eerie, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”/”Feed”-esque conclusion, which implies that a utopian, “pre-Tower of Babel” world peace — via a deconstruction and amalgamation of our differences, cultures, nationalities, and religions — may not be the future we want for the next generation. As the protagonist concludes (in reference to the famous idiom of the baby and the bathwater), “The bathwater may be the best thing about us.”
Lots of hard science, with some food for thought and enough thrills and solid characters to keep you reading.