Pat Cadigan’s FOOLS: A Review by Paul McAuley

Arthur C. Clarke Award-winner, Paul McAuley, in addition to being one of SF’s finest writers, is also an astute judge of a good book. Here, he reviews fellow-Arthur C. Clarke Award-winner Pat Cadigan‘s Fools, which won the award in 1995 . . .

Fools, Pat Cadigan‘s third novel, is set in the same milieu as her first, Mindplayers, in which exchange of memory, assimilation of new personalities, and direct mind-to-mind contact is commonplace and mediated by machines in a consensual space that more closely resembles the malleable dreamscapes of virtual reality than the virtual grids of cyberspace. It starts off as a dizzy nightmare, the kind where you think you know what is going on, but really you don’t know anything at all, and you’re dressed in stolen clothes. An actress, Marna, thinks she’s at her Coming Out party – she has licensed her persona for public consumption and become Famous. Except, it turns out, she isn’t Marna, but a replica of her personality lodged in the head of a personality junky, Marceline, who has even less idea of what is going on than Marna, and is missing a week of her life.

In a slow descent through the anarchic zones of the Downs Marceline pieces together what has happened to her. She has been working for an Escort Agency, feeding her personality junky habit by helping people suicide in a virtual reality of their own choosing and grabbing useful memories when they go for recycling. The real Marna discovered she had a Brain Police persona lodged in deep undercover inside her during a mind-meld with a fellow actor, and she went to Marceline’s Escort Agency to get rid of it. But when Marna’s personality bled into Marceline’s the police persona jumped across too, and still needs to complete her mission to penetrate and expose a ring of personality bootleggers, which is why she was in Marna in the first place.

And then the story begins to get complicated, as it rings all the changes on the multiple viewpoints of its untrustworthy narrators, and cranks up their paranoia in a fast-paced and slippery plot in which no one can trust any one else, not even themselves. It’s a brilliantly controlled funhouse mirror of a novel, through which the reader must pick her way with the help of different typefaces for each personality, and Cadigan’s careful delineation of Marna’s self-possessed bitchiness, Marceline’s streetsmart self-destructive vulnerability, and the cop’s cool compassion. Any further explanation would be about as long as the book itself, but trust me: Fools is smart, urgent, funny, and one of those rare books that not only bears immediate rereading, but demands it.

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. His latest novel is In the Mouth of the Whale, published by Gollancz and available in paperback and as an eBook