In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
One of the most difficult types of science fiction to write is a tale set in the immediate future, since it involves attempting to see what things will be like right around the corner from the present day. While broad trends might meet expectations, specific events are harder to guess at. Over the past decades, technological innovations have been especially difficult to extrapolate, with some expected breakthroughs stalling out, and others coming from seemingly out of nowhere. I recently ran across a Spider Robinson book that predicted a technology allowing direct stimulation of the pleasure centers of the brain. As you might expect, that turns out to be anything but a boon for mankind. I decided to see how well the book has held up in the decades since it was written in 1982. So, let’s examine how the author did in creating his predictions for Mindkiller, a tale that takes place in the mid- to late-1990s.
I’ve been writing this column long enough that I’m starting to revisit the work of some of my favorite authors, and among my favorites is Spider Robinson. There are only a few authors who’ve inspired me to seek out every one of their books, and he’s one of them. This time, for a change of pace, I wanted to look at one of his works not set in his humorous Callahan’s Place universe. Recently, I rediscovered my paperback copy of Mindkiller, a book I hadn’t seen for years. I remembered that I really enjoyed it, but didn’t remember hardly any details from the book, making it the perfect choice for a re-read.
About the Author
Spider Robinson (born 1948), is a Canadian science fiction author, born in New York but lost to our neighbors in the north many years ago. Back in 2017, I reviewed his magnificent Callahan’s Bar series, and you can find that review here, along with a biography of the author. Much of Robinson’s work is set on Earth, in the present or near future—a tricky place for a science fiction author to navigate, but a place where he has been able to shine. The germ of the book Mindkiller, “God is an Iron,” appeared as a short story in the excellent magazine Omni in 1979. Mindkiller was published in 1982, and set in the near future of 1994 through 1999.
The Tricky Shoals of the Near Future
Predicting the future is a tricky business. While futurists attempt to make a science of it, there is often more art than skill involved in guessing what the world of the future will look like. Science fiction writers of the last century largely missed the massive advances in electronic miniaturization and computer science that came to pass, and even the few who predicted a worldwide computer network did not fully anticipate what the internet would become. Atomic power turned out to require extensive shielding, and was extremely risky. Most writers assumed that, once we made it to the moon, our space exploration efforts would continue to accelerate; instead, the Apollo program was cancelled, and a shell of a manned space program has limped along ever since, starved for cash. Commercial ventures in space, though long expected, are only now becoming a glimmer on the horizon. The Cold War standoff between communist and capitalist nations sputtered to an end, but the ascendancy of liberal democracies and Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” was not sustained, and religious conflicts that many thought we would outgrow continue to cause turmoil around the globe. Rather than attempting to guess at the near future, many science fiction authors choose to jump centuries or even millennia into the future, sometimes even leaving our current world far behind as a dimly remembered part of the past.
There are various ways to approach science fiction set in the present or near future. As with historical fiction, you can keep your stakes small, focusing on individuals who work within the basic framework of history that everyone knows. You can present secret societies or organizations that operate out of sight, or offer the science fiction equivalent of a portal fantasy, where some other world is just a step away from ours (and here’s a link to a TV Tropes article on the topic). You can destroy our current world through a war or some other transformational event, giving your characters a blank canvas on which to operate. One type of fiction that operates within our current world is the techno-thriller, where the protagonists are dealing with some sort of device that can transform the world, working either to stop or facilitate that transformation. At the same time, I generally don’t often find in these stories the essential “sense of wonder” that plays such a key role in readers’ enjoyment of space operas, interstellar adventures, or science fiction tales with sweeping, epic scope.
The one thing that is certain for writers dealing with the near future is that their narrative will soon be overtaken by real-world events, and is destined to become a tale of what might have been.
The narrative alternates between two time periods, and two protagonists. In 1994, Norman Kent has reached the end of his rope. His wife has left him for a younger man. His career as a college professor no longer satisfies him. He is also haunted by memories of wartime injuries. He goes out to the MacDonald Bridge over Halifax Harbor, and attempts to jump off. He is rescued, but discovers his savior only helped him in order to rob him. The man did not account for Norman’s suicidal frame of mind, however, and just to spite him, Norman throws his wallet, money and belongings into the harbor. The thief is frustrated, but not vengeful, and gives up. Norman returns home only to find his estranged sister Madeline arriving for a visit. She has been in Europe for years, and while she won’t go into details, he gets the impression that she’s recently suffered an unhappy end to a romance. The two siblings spend a few happy weeks together, comforting each other and healing, until one night Madeline goes to a party and does not return home.
The narrative shifts to 1999, where a man in New York (who we later find is named Joe) finds a woman (who we later find is named Karen), hooked up as a “wirehead,” someone who has a jack installed in their head with wires connected to their brain’s pleasure centers. Karen, however, is not wired for short-term pleasure: She is connected in a way that will eventually lead to her suicide. Joe decides to nurse her back to health, although when she finally asks him how he happened to be in her apartment, he ruefully admits that he is a burglar.
Back in 1994, Norman is finally moving on with his life, and having sex with a friend named Phyllis. (I’ll offer a little warning, here: this book has more sex in it than most I review. As his career progressed, Robinson’s work began to include more sexual situations.) They decide to engage in some bondage play; Norman ties Phyllis to the bed, and just then his ex-wife, who still has a key, barges in. She runs out screaming to find that coincidentally, TV reporters who are following the story of Norman’s missing sister have arrived, and she vengefully lets them in. While this story is more serious than Robinson’s Callahan series, I can’t think of many things he has written that don’t have some whimsical elements—and if you can imagine how a sex scene might have played out as part of an Abbott and Costello movie, you won’t be far from the mark, here. The scene ends with Norman getting an offer of assistance from one of the reporters.
In 1999, Joe takes Karen to his apartment, which is in the office of a dingy warehouse. But that is only the entrance, and she finds he has a plush secret lair under the building. This is right out of a pulp novel, and while Robinson comes up with a plausible explanation, it is odd for a common burglar to have such plushy digs. Karen meets Joe’s friend Fader, and continues to heal. We find that Joe is an amnesia victim, has little memory of his early life, and experiences episodes or “fugues” where he loses track of his thoughts and his surroundings.
We continue through the novel, alternating between these two characters and time periods. In 1994, Norman is obsessed with tracking down his sister’s kidnappers (or killers, as he suspects is might be the case), and exacting revenge. Slowly but surely, he hones his physical fitness and the combat skills he gained in the Army, all the while working with local police to follow clues. In 1999, Karen becomes fixated with the idea of taking revenge on the companies that provide the wirehead gear, and while Joe feels it will get them both killed, he agrees to help her. The reader knows that there must be some connection between these two narratives other than revenge and attempted suicides, and just as I was starting to suspect the nature of that connection, Robinson makes it explicit. The story continues to switch off between Norman and Joe, and the story seems to be heading irrevocably toward a rather grim “good guys get revenge” type of ending, the sort that you might find in the kind of detective novel this story sometimes resembles. Because I had forgotten the details from my first reading, I found myself starting to wonder why I’d thought of this dark tale so fondly over the years.
But then, with a deftness that few other authors can muster, Robinson flips the script on us: What seems to be an adventure story with science fiction elements roars to a conclusion that is science fictional to its core. It’s one of those endings you don’t see coming, but after it happens, you realize that all the clues were right in front of you all along. And in doing so, that ending brings the reader the sense of wonder, the feeling of “gee whiz,” that you don’t often experience with near-term science fiction. I finished the book with a smile on my face, and probably a bit of a dazed expression as well. Like the amnesiac character Joe, I finally ended up remembering what I had forgotten.
The Sequels to Mindkiller
I didn’t want to mention the sequels before the recap, because sometimes the mere existence of a sequel can be a spoiler, but Mindkiller eventually ended up as the first book in a trilogy. I don’t think that was Robinson’s original intention. As I remember it, in his book column in Galaxy Magazine back in the 1970s, he would mock the literary trend that seemed to be turning every book into a trilogy. Mindkiller came out from Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1982, with a paperback copy from Berkley Books in 1983. The first sequel, Time Pressure, came out from Ace Books in hardback in 1987, followed by a paperback in 1988. Baen Books issued an omnibus edition of these first two books in 1996 under the title Deathkiller, and Robinson did some updating of the text for that reissue. This was followed by the paperback publication of a third volume, Lifehouse, by Baen in 1997. Later that year, Baen published all three books in a hardback anthology entitled The Lifehouse Trilogy. The ending of Mindkiller leaves mankind on the verge of dramatic and transcendent events. The next two books take the science fictional concepts of the first book and spin them out to a fascinating, thoughtful, and moving conclusion.
Mindkiller is one of those science fiction stories that takes a plausible, near-future situation, and deftly leads the reader in an unexpected direction that turns everything on its head. It is just one of many stories Spider Robinson has written that demonstrates that transcendent experiences could be lurking right around the corner. It has aged very well, and while some of the terms and devices we use are different and the dates have changed, it could easily still be read and enjoyed as a story of near-future events that are just about to happen.
For now, I’m finished, and it’s your turn to chime in: Have you read Mindkiller, or any of its sequels, and if so, what did you think? What other near-future science fiction stories have you enjoyed?
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.