Solitaire, Kelley Eskridge
Solitaire, Kelley Eskridge
Big Mouth House, 352pp, £10.99
Some time in the near-future, planet Earth finally gets its act together and institutes a single global government. The children born in the first second of the EarthGov era are designated “Hopes”, trained from birth to be a credit, ambassador and example to the new age. Ren ‘Jackal’ Segura is one such Hope, and she represents Ko, Earth’s only corporation-state – or rather, she will soon do when she is inaugurated. On a visit to Hong Kong she inadvertently – under nonetheless suspicious circumstances – causes the deaths of a group of people, when an elevator fails in the city’s tallest building and plummets to the ground, killing all those in it. Including an important Chinese senator, and Jackal’s circle of close friends. Having learnt prior to the trip that she was not a real Hope – Ko lied about the timing of her birth because they wanted a Hope of their own – Jackal is in no fit state to argue a terrorist group claims responsibility, Jackal is linked to them, and Ko demands she does not contest the charges.
As a result, Jackal is tried and convicted, and sentenced to spend ten years in an experimental Virtual Reality solitary confinement. Eight years later, she is “released”, although only eight months have passed in the real world. However, unlike other criminals sentenced to Virtual Confinement (VC), Jackal is much less psychologically damaged. This is because she discovered a way to edit her environment, and so replaced her cell with a simulation of her home and its environs on Ko’s island nation.
Should the authorities learn of Jackal’s ability, she will be in and out of VR labs for the rest of her life, so she keeps it a secret. She is released on probation into a city in North America, but as a convicted criminal finds it almost impossible to rebuild her life. It is at this point that she finds Solitaire, a bar which caters to those who have served VC sentences. She also learns that VC inmates are prone to “aftershocks”, in which the person is momentarily back in their VC cell.
A couple of years ago, I read Eskridge’s 2007 short story collection, Dangerous Space, and was much impressed by her writing. Solitaire actually predates that book by five years, but was reprinted in a new edition this year by Big Mouth House, an imprint of Small Beer Press. I’m somewhat surprised the book has not remained in print since its original publication back in 2002. Because it’s that good. The prose is way above what you would expect to find in a genre heartland novel. There are, perhaps, a couple of hand-wavey moments here and there – the Virtual Reality, for example, is left a little vague – but they’re minor and in no way spoil the story. Eskridge’s knowledge of motivational studies, however, comes across as extremely authoratitive (I believe that’s her day-job). But above all that is the character of Jackal herself. She is the heart of Solitaire; and very few other female protagonists in genre fiction as beautifully rounded as her spring to mind. Not once does Solitaire feel like it is not her story; and not once does the story feel like it is not a consequence of her thoughts and actions.
Solitaire is that rare beast, an accessible and beautifully written science fiction novel which satisfies both as good science fiction and as a good novel. Highly recommended.
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