Tachyon Publications (out April)
LAST month, with the world still reeling from the siege of the US Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump, President Joe Biden used his inaugural address to call for national unity. “The American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us,” he said. “On ‘We the People’ who seek a more perfect union.”
In the days since, debate has raged as to whether such a union is achievable or even desirable. These are issues sci-fi writer Elly Bangs also wrestles with in her debut novel, Unity. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, we follow Danae as she flees Bloom City, an underwater colony ruled with an iron fist by the Medusa Clan.
Danae is physically and spiritually wounded: she had been one constituent of a hive mind, but is now fractured from the other souls that once made up her consciousness. Accompanied by her lover Naoto and ex-mercenary Alexei, she heads to the ruins of the US to reconcile with her other selves. Yet the trio are pursued by enemies old and new, whose motives range from personal vendettas to potentially world-ending greed.
How and why Danae became separated from the other parts of her hive mind is one mystery among many. Who are the Keepers? What does the man with the blue tattoo want with Danae? And why does Alexei see a giant floating eyeball from time to time? Part of the joy of Unity‘s first act is how Bangs drops hints about these plot threads without favouring any particular one, all while establishing the cyberpunk world of Bloom City.
“The personal stories about Danae’s past and the ethics of melding minds make Unity so interesting”
Once the trio reach dry land, however, that broad focus can be frustrating. In this future, Earth has suffered an abundance of apocalypses – nuclear war, climate change, pestilence and poisoned oceans – but the story’s pace doesn’t allow much time to process their horror.
While that helps convey humanity’s numb acceptance of the latest threat, a weapon of mass destruction called Gray, Earth’s degradation might have had more impact if Bangs had focused on just one disaster. Similarly, Gray’s ability to turn everything into “nanobot pudding” doesn’t feel as terrifying as the smaller dangers posed by Danae’s enemies.
It is the personal stories about Danae’s past and the ethics of melding minds that make Unity so interesting. We eventually learn that Danae’s hive mind has unified with a variety of luminaries in order to solve humanity’s problems, but that this has skewed her view of the world. “I stopped noticing that nearly all the lives I added to my gestalt were privileged ones,” she realises.
Danae can still unify with others, yet chooses not to out of self-hatred. “I’m a shell of what I used to be,” she says after telling Naoto that he can join her hive mind, but not meld minds with her.
She may retreat from unity for the wrong reasons, but it becomes clear that the technology that created her hive mind is also ripe for exploitation in the wrong hands. Even Danae uses it immorally at times, reluctantly invading a would-be assassin’s mind to search for information about her enemies.
To reveal more would be to spoil the story, but be assured that Bangs leaves no mystery unsolved by the end. Unity is packed full of ideas, sometimes overwhelmingly so, but they ultimately cohere into a powerful exploration of trauma and consent.
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