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Double Vision

by Tricia Sullivan

(Orbit, £10.99, 377 pages, trade paperback, published July 2005. £7.99, 377 pages, paperback, April 2006.)

Review by Jakob Schmidt

cover scanKaren "Cookie" Orbach is a psychic: watching TV lets her "see" things -- disturbing things that are definitely not on the screen. The mysterious Dataplex-company finds a way to harness Cookie's paranormal ability by using her as a spy in a secret interstellar war. In her working hours, Cookie projects her mind into the "Grid", an alien jungle structure that literally eats up ideas -- every piece of technology and every human being lost in the Grid returns in a strangely altered way. As the war effort moves into a new phase, Cookie realises that the nature of the Grid and the war might be very different from what she thought. Elements of her work seem to spill over into her private live, and one of the results seems to be her sudden inability to eat -- for the heavyweight Cookie, who has relied upon eating as ultimate way to happiness, a blessing and a curse at once ...

In Double Vision, Tricia Sullivan employs a similar method as in her previous novel Maul: she creates two distinct narrative strands in respectively different worlds, of which one is actually a complex metaphor for what's going on in the other. One of the settings is the US of 1980s, while the other is some kind of bizarre world-encompassing organism in which the soldiers of an all-female unit try to hang on to their sanity. Cookie is the only character present in both settings, and in the latter, she's a silent observer for most of the time. The former narrative, on the other hand, is firmly grounded in everyday experience -- its most prominent plot point is about Cookie losing respect in the patriarchal umbrella organisation of her karate dojo. Actually, it could be argued that Double Vision is a mainstream novel in disguise -- nevertheless half of the chapters are science-fictional in a way that probably makes them impenetrable to most mainstream readers.

To my surprise, I found that I enjoyed the "realist" sections of the novel much more than the science-fictional ones. While the novel gives clear hints regarding the basic nature of the Grid-metaphor, its intricacies aren't that easy to figure out, even in hindsight. And with the central question answered pretty early within the novel, I simply wasn't curious enough to pay attention to all the details and figure out how exactly the Grid works. Therefore, the events in the Grid chapters often seemed pretty arbitrary to me.

Cookie's real-world experiences, on the other hand, are funny, dramatic and feature a much stronger set of characters -- special kudos to Sullivan for creating the character of Miles, who is a computer programmer, plays D&D and nevertheless is not a total nerd. Furthermore, Sullivan gets the eighties pretty accurately. There are tons of pop-cultural reference, and they not only feel natural, but also underline the general concept of the novel and thereby create a neat element of self-reflexivity. SF-Fans will enjoy the numerous nods to Anne McCaffrey, Frank Herbert and Star Trek. Even the overall concept of the novel could be seen as a reference to Philip K. Dick, especially to his novels Time out of Joint and Ubik.

The one prominent flaw of Double Vision is the jarring contrast between the funny and easy-to-relate-to narrative of Cookie's mundane life and the complex metaphors of the Grid chapters. That being said, I still enjoyed the novel, not only for its more realist sections, but also because it explores the intriguing concept of a secondary reality that is less a virtual simulation and more an "ecology of ideology". Recommended, put be prepared for a bumpy ride.

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