Emma Geen‘s The Many Selves of Katherine North (Bloomsbury, review copy from NetGalley) is a promising debut. Kit is a phenomenaut, one of a small number of young people who are employed to transfer their consciousnesses into the bodies of specially bred and adapted animals, principally for the purposes of scientific research. Kit is also the longest-serving phenomenaut. Only those with a high degree of neural plasticity (typically children and adolescents) are able to cope with the level of change involved in becoming another creature.
Shapeshifting and body-swapping are familiar plot devices in science fiction and fantasy, but Green places them in a techno-thriller plot. Kit becomes concerned that ShenCorp – the company she works for – is becoming involved in increasingly unethical activities. Kit’s passionate commitment to the scientific aspects of her work mean that she struggles to accept ShenCorp’s desire to develop a consumer tourism experience to sell to the public for profit. She suspects they are building ‘human’ host bodies, not just animal, in breach of all the rules governing the industry. And she becomes increasingly concerned that people may be interfering with her projection into host bodies by planting false sensory inputs.
But how much of that is real, and how much a manifestation of anxiety and paranoia, or a decline in her neural plasticity as she grows older? Either would be a sign that Kit’s ability to work as a phenomenaut is coming to an end. Kit cannot bear the idea of that career coming to an end. For Kit, her work is an escape from a tragic home life, where she has to watch the physical and mental decline of her own mother – formerly a very talented scientist – from an aggressive form of dementia. It’s also an escape from having to grow up and face the challenges of being an adult. Kit is seeking to prolong her adolescence for as long as possible, but she can’t put it off forever. The novel’s eventual resolution is surprisingly low in conflict and drama, particularly given the way the thriller aspects of the story have been set up throughout the book, but it centres on Kit accepting her growing maturity.
The real strength of Geen’s writing is her imagination of what it must be like to project into different animal species. The novel is meticulously researched and the descriptions of Kit’s projections are incredibly convincing as she adjusts to different sensory input, environments and ways of living. The fraying of human identity as the phenomenauts bring back aspects of animal behaviour – particularly dominance displays and survival behaviours – back into their human lives is powerful and compelling.
This is a great debut. Emma Geen is one to watch.
Goodreads rating: 4*