Book cover: Proof of Concept - Gwyneth Jones (a silhouette stands in a shaft of blue light)Climate change has herded humanity into Hives, the 99% pacified by a diet of mass media while the super-rich look out for themselves. Orphan Kir is part of a project – the Needle – trying to make mass migration into space feasible. But her on-board AI has uncovered secrets it wants to share with her – if it can find a way around the code that controls it.

Proof of Concept and I got off on the wrong foot. It started with the blurb, which I loved, but which I soon realised I’d read more into than was intended: the reference to dreams wasn’t meant to be taken literally (but seriously: a science project into harnessing the power of humanity’s dreams to solve our challenges? Somebody write me that story, and no, I don’t expect it to be comfortable or end well). My mistake, and not one I’d blame Proof of Concept for. Besides, I’m always up for a story about getting to the stars.

However, it also starts in a muddle: less in media res than in media what the hell is going on. It starts with two scientists (who may or may not love or loathe one another; our narrator is uncertain, and it never really becomes relevant or obvious) being interviewed by an avatar of the mass media audience as interpreted by Caesar Flickerman. We experience it in snatches of conversation cross-cut with Kir’s thoughts, but the set-up is obscured by our lack of context.

I like stories that take our modern fascination with mass media and social media and spin out future dystopias; the problem is that lots of people have taken a tilt at it and done well. Here, Gwyneth Jones has a great set of ideas, but for me she lacks the page time in a novella to do them justice. Instead it’s inference and hand-waving and consequently a bit of a mess.

So we must simply take on faith that humanity lives in massive conurbations; that those few who struggle to live in the heavily-polluted world outside effectively have no rights (belonging to no nation state and protected by no corporate interest, which is why Kir has an AI in her head – it’s eventually clear that this would usually be illegal); and that public opinion as mediated by social/mass media is perceived to have far more influence that it really does. So far, so familiar; and once our troupe are locked into a science habitat deep underground it doesn’t really matter – it’s all window dressing.

And from this point, it’s a familiar narrative arc that is a favourite and I should have found it easy to love: two mis-matched tribes (the scientists and the social media stars) locked in a confined space for twelve months of Making Serious Science Entertaining. It’s got all the right ingredients for an excellent thriller (or satire) well before introverted Kir scrambles out an air lock and goes to get some much-needed personal time Outside in the empty caverns around the habitat (and all my love to her for doing so).

Unfortunately, the other characters never came to life for me. The question of whether (and why) the leadership was quietly murdering the crew lacked urgency because the dead didn’t really exist as characters beforehand (neither did the leaders). The mystery of what was really in all the cases near the air lock was under-played; as, for my money, were the AI’s attempts to make contact – undermined by Kir’s distraction and at times wilful ignorance. The friction between the scientists and the celebrities was diverting, but the characters lacked personalities; I couldn’t now tell you their names, let alone what they stood for. As for what’s really going on, I won’t spoil it, but it wasn’t a surprise (I’m not sure it was meant to be) and the delivery robbed the consequences of their sting.

In the end, I’m not really sure what sort of story this wanted to be – it failed to engage as a human story or deceive as a thriller. Perhaps it works best as a coming of age story as Kir has her illusions stripped away and must deal with a strange new context; but I didn’t find enough to latch onto for this to resonate for me. It was fine at best, with little to object to – but nothing to excite me. While I will explore the author’s other work, I will do so on the strength of her reputation rather than on the basis of this effort.

***