Don’t open the box

Michael Stephen Fuchs — who first hit our book­shelves with the tech­no­thrill­er The Manuscript (which I reviewed for Pulp.Net) is back. His new work is more-or-less in the same genre, and a spe­cif­ic one at that: Our her­oes and/or heroines are under­go­ing an exist­en­tial crisis and some form of Psychic MacGuffin (that might resolve said crisises) presents itself with a flash two thirds into the book; her­oes and heroines then fall over them­selves in an effort to claim the MacGuffin before Others do. The Others will be tot­ing an embar­rass­ment of weaponry and many fire-fights will come to pass before the MacGuffin is taken, by either our heroes/heroines or the Others…with exist­en­tially inter­est­ing res­ults.

If this book was a car, it would be very dif­fi­cult to handle, look swanky, and have little boot space…but you’ll have a soft spot for it all the same.

The main prot­ag­on­ist is a woman fight­ing for mean­ing in her life fol­low­ing the death of her eld­er broth­er. Though British, she has fled to California where she works as a com­puter pro­gram­mer tasked with con­struct­ing arti­fi­cially intel­li­gent ‘bots’ for first-per­son shoot­ers. Prior to this, she was an aca­dem­ic spe­cial­ising in AI. She lives — some­what improb­ably, it has to be said — with a Bonobo chim­pan­zee and spends her days in con­ver­sa­tion in with her office mate, Thad, a hunky-but-mar­ried com­puter engin­eer. Both of them have issues with wheth­er or not their lives can have mean­ing.

For a thrill­er, the Pandora’s Sisters is actu­ally quite slow to start. Fuchs patches this a little with a ‘flash­for­ward’ sec­tion that shows how much per­il the pro­togan­ist will get into — in the Vatican, appar­ently, and it will involve hal­berds and Swiss Guards dressed like Bavarian school chil­dren. Until then, the book com­prises a some­what frus­trat­ing com­bin­a­tion of char­ac­ter navel-gaz­ing and occa­sion­ally inter­est­ing mini-essays on aspects of pop­u­lar sci­ence, par­tic­u­larly evol­u­tion­ary psy­cho­logy.

I had a mixed reac­tion to the philo­sophy in this book. Fuchs is a philo­sophy gradu­ate, and no doubt knows his stuff. But his char­ac­ters — some of whom have PhDs in related fields — seem to pro­duce, for the most part, rather weak philo­soph­ic­al ram­blings of the kind one reads in bad under­gradu­ate essays. Now, a work of fic­tion isn’t an essay, and this might well be the res­ult of Fuchs smooth­ing out some of more dif­fi­cult bits…but I was dis­ap­poin­ted.

For example, one of the dangers (to iden­tity) of apply­ing evol­u­tion­ary psy­cho­logy to human beha­viour is that, to an extent, a com­pon­ent of our beha­viour must be determ­ined by the inform­a­tion in our genes. …But that does not mean that the remainder is fod­der for our free will. It is con­trolled by the inform­a­tion in our envir­on­ment. And the com­bin­a­tion of these two com­plex inform­a­tion sys­tems — the human body and its envir­on­ment — cov­ers the extent of our beha­viour. Though the char­ac­ters in Pandora’s Sisters search for mean­ing as some­thing hid­den, almost, in the genes, it seems that a mean­ing­less­ness is already appar­ent in their dis­cus­sions about evol­u­tion­ary psy­cho­logy, com­pletely inde­pend­ently of any ‘Pandora code’ in the DNA. And yet, as far as I can tell, they don’t con­sider this.

The oth­er dif­fi­culty I had con­cerned the notion of con­scious­ness. There are lots of good argu­ments that counter the ‘ghost in the machine’ dual­ist of Descartes and oth­ers, and (speak­ing with my cog­nit­ive sci­ence hat on) most neur­os­cient­ists today see con­scious­ness as a ‘wave crest’, if you will, of many com­pon­ents that, in them­selves, do not show ‘con­scious beha­viour’. The per­spect­ive is one of evol­u­tion­ary con­tinu­ity, too, with chim­pan­zees, for example, seen as hav­ing the pre­curs­ors con­scious­ness (because of their shared ances­try with mod­ern humans). But the char­ac­ters in this book see the emer­gence of con­scious­ness as a mys­tery that some­how con­founds evol­u­tion, just as nine­teenth cen­tury crit­ics of nat­ur­al selec­tion though the eye was too com­plex to evolve (in fact, it has evolved sev­er­al times inde­pend­ently). I just didn’t buy it.

Still, I recog­nise that this is a work of enter­tain­ment. Once the guns come out, the nov­el switches gear into a dream-like action­er where char­ac­ters dis­cuss their favour­ite auto­mat­ic rifles, per­form start­ling feats of der­ring-do, and gen­er­ally bust caps in vari­ous asses. Fuchs’s prose is sharp­er and wit­ti­er than before, and he’s kept the focus on few­er char­ac­ters. Definitely worth a look.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

8 thoughts on “Don’t open the box”

  1. Interesting review — but I’d be inter­ested to know why you decided to read this par­tic­u­lar book? (Although I’ve just real­ised, this guy might be really fam­ous when it comes to thrillers, and I would not know as I haven’t read much of that type of stuff).

    Actually, while I’m com­plain­ing of the fact I know so little about thrillers, per­haps I could impor­tune upon you to, at some point, write a post recom­mend­ing some good ones to try.…?

  2. Damn blog­ger. Not sure why it changed my name to Wired Jester. That’s the *URL* com­puter. Do keep up.

  3. Well, I read this book because the author sent me a copy and it looked inter­est­ing. Plus I’m gen­er­ally inter­ested in the MacMillan New Writing enter­prise.

    A post recom­mend­ing good thrillers sounds intriguing. Perhaps I should do a top five books and top five films…stay tuned!

  4. ach, blast it, now I’m going to have to read the book. Hopefully the lib­rary will have it, as I won­der if the navel-gaz­ing, er, I mean, philo­sophy, will keep me inter­ested — I enjoy explor­ing ideas, but if they are too crus­ted in aca­dem­ic nomen­clature, I find it too hard after a day of work and kids, and if it is too watered-down, it can become mean­ing­less gen­er­al­iz­a­tion.

    Why is it that thrillers so often more bor­ing than thrill­ing? I’m usu­ally pretty sus­pi­cious when I read the words ‘tense’ or ‘taut’ — how does the writer main­tain that ten­sion? Even when there is some­thing mundane going on, you have that sense of men­ace and impend­ing viol­ence.

    I’m not sure that I really know what a thrill­er is, you know.


  5. Go ahead and read it, Helen — I think you’ll it fairly tense and grip­ping. You might want to try order­ing it through your lib­rary.

  6. Interesting to read your com­ments about the blur­ring of philosophy/psychology, Ian.

    From your review, the book sounds like it’s two sep­ar­ate works. I think I would be inter­ested in read­ing some­thing sim­il­ar, but even, with the navel-gaz­ing and the action more bal­anced.

    I’ve nev­er under­stood this fas­cin­a­tion with star­ing at fruit.

  7. Yes, I like the blur­ring of psy­cho­logy and philo­sophy. In fact, I’ve always thought (and tried to show stu­dents) that psy­cho­logy is seen best as a branch of philo­sophy; with just a little philo­soph­ic­al vocab­u­lary, it becomes much easi­er to con­cep­tu­al­ise the his­tory of psy­cho­logy and its vari­ous paradigms.

    I think Fuchs has man­aged a fairly good integ­ra­tion here; at least, the philo­soph­ic­al conun­drums are integ­ral to the plot. I’ll be inter­ested to see what he comes up with in his next book.

  8. But the char­ac­ters in this book see the emer­gence of con­scious­ness as a mys­tery that some­how con­founds evol­u­tion

    The “I don’t under­stand it so it must be magic” the­ory of evol­u­tion. I could nev­er force myself through a book like this. I find that I dam­age too many walls by throw­ing the book at them.

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