Shattered Minds by Laura Lam
In the film adaptation of Minority Report (2002), a middle-aged man visits an establishment that provides its customer the service of wish fulfillment through simulation. Unaware that he is in the presence of a police officer, he demands a simulation where he gets to kill his boss, and ends up being admonished by the owner as someone who makes the world a terrible place to live in. While technology has provided individuals with the means to fulfill their desires, the highly controlled criminal justice system of Minority Report, in which crimes are detected through precognition, sinking to the levels of depravity at which a person can commit murder, even in a simulation, is not encouraged by the authorities.
Laura Lam’s Shattered Minds, the second standalone novel set in the world of Pacifica, reverses the above setup. It uses familiar science fiction tropes: a big corporation seeks complete control over society, working in nexus with a corrupt government—and builds a world where a drug named Zeal is used a means of social control. The citizens of Pacifica are free to commit crimes within the Zealscape, a state of lucid dreaming created using a combination of Zeal and VR, and the government will turn a blind eye so long as the arrangement keeps the worst criminals off the streets. While the novel seeks to build a world full of decadence, in which the failure of the criminal rehabilitation system has torn apart a fragile social contract, it falls quite short of achieving that. What we are instead provided with is a banal assortment of characters: a frustratingly underdeveloped antagonist, an antiheroine whose backstory is given out in intrusive and awkwardly placed flashbacks, and a supporting cast whose motivations are exposed with a parsimony that is hardly justified owing to their incongruence with any obvious objectives.
Carina, the antiheroine of the novel, has detailed fantasies about murder. She has had a fallout with her previous employer, Sudice—the aforementioned corporation seeking to control an unsuspecting populace through a futuristic technology—and spends most of her time controlling violent urges with the help of the Zealscape, where she murders criminals made out of figments of her imagination. While Carina’s murderous disposition is repeatedly mentioned, it never appears on the surface to feel enough of a threat; her psychopathic traits instead devolve into self-pity, and her character, never particularly rounded, is further flattened owing to the underdevelopment of this most important aspect of her personality.
Following the murder of a former colleague, who as a last act of redemption contacts her in Zealscape and sends her incriminating evidence against Sudice, Carina joins a band of misfits to bring down the corporation that has ruined countless lives to meet its ambitions. What follows is a half-baked narrative—in which the antagonist Roz makes a few barely threatening appearances, only to disappear into POV chapters composed of her ruminations and flashbacks—of deus ex machinas that seem too easy, and scenes that are stitched together with dialogue and description to fit into a Hollywood blockbuster:
“What’s going on?” she calls back over the din of the guns. She shoots at the last man, and three more enter. Fuck.
“Raf and Charlie have woken up!” Dax yells.
Charlie says something, but Carina can’t hear it over the shots.
“Time to push forward,” Kivon yells. He grips the gun, eyes snagging on hers. Carina is a fellow soldier. In this battle, he’ll have her back and trust her to have his. (p. 207)
“This is too much for me, Mark,” she says. “You placed your bets on the wrong person. I’m only going to let you down.”
“You’re strong as iron, Carina.”
“Then you will be reforged.” (p. 247)
This isn’t all:
“Hard to keep your head when the person you love is hurt. My only advice is to take that fear and pain and try to turn it into rage.” (p. 349)
Lam’s inability to write good dialogue is further exacerbated by the multiple infodumps delivered using laboured exposition and clichéd references:
“Humans need something concrete to focus their horror. Like Anne Frank’s diary and the Holocaust. Like Lucas Hollander, a five year old boy who died of radiation poisoning and became the poster child of the Great Upheaval.” (p. 258)
The poor plotting and dialogue make Shattered Minds underwhelming. Lam never allows her characters to leave the inhibited space she puts them in; they exist within a constricted setting, and feel separated from the larger world of Pacifica, barely allowing the reader a glimpse into this supposedly decaying culture. The protagonists are never put into a situation that feels truly perilous, and they spend most of the time at their base, conversing with an ease that depicts no tension. This becomes all the more implausible when it becomes clear that the team’s mission is entirely dependent upon the whims of its one member who spends most of the novel fighting drug withdrawal and homicidal tendencies.
To provide for this absence of fully fleshed-out characters and plot, the novel is written entirely in a present tense which dwells reliably upon the minutiae of quotidian life and those endless flashbacks. While it often brings forward a sense of urgency and vividness, in the absence of good writing this voice more often merely serves as a crutch to support a flailing plot.
Shattered Minds stumbles on far too many occasions: a plot that doesn’t move beyond familiar tropes, unskilled and forced prose, indifferent and contradictory characterization, dialogue and actions interrupted by infodumps about Pacifica’s past and its technology (the “replicator,” a device used to process food, clothing, etc. is mentioned almost every time a character sets about to perform daily actions or chores), and a climax in which the stakes are raised only to be lowered immediately. The novel also fails to explore areas that could have otherwise made it an engaging read: how deep has Carina fallen into the abyss of self-destruction? How effective is Zeal as an instrument of control? How complacent can it make the unsuspecting populace? How devastating could the technology that Sudice is seeking so stealthily to introduce be? All these questions are put aside to provide us with a novel that is sometimes fast-paced, but often dull and mundane.
By almost every parameter, Shattered Minds is a subpar and failed novel. It’s unsure of itself, which might have not been a bad thing, had it not seemed too thin, too lacking in texture, and too deliberate to draw the reader in. Most of it is simply dull and overwrought. It might make for a quick read, but hardly an enjoyable one.