Tag Archives: Questionable Minds

Questionable Minds and Victorian pseudo-science

One of the things that fascinates me about the Victorians is the way they combined major scientific and technological breakthroughs with crackpot pseudoscience.Not that they saw it this way themselves, of course. The theories they embraced seemed just as rational and scientific as evolution, which was one of those breakthroughs. For example, criminologist and physician Cesare Lombroso developed a theory that criminals were atavistic throwbacks to a lower level of evolution — i.e., black or Native American. Savages with minds too primitive to grasp the principles of law that came relatively easily to white dudes. Science historian Stephen Jay Gould wrote (I forget in which of his books) that this had a real impact on criminal sentencing: obviously a superior man who, say, killed his wife in a fit of jealousy shouldn’t be sentenced the same way as a career criminal who killed routinely.

Cynthia Eagle Russett’s Sexual Science shows how Victorian scientists studying gender differences though they were being perfectly rational in exploring the roots of women’s inferiority. Was it their smaller brains? Their immaturity (obviously the lack of beards showed women were like immature men)? The way reproduction drained energy from their brains? The fatal flaw in all their theories was that they started from the assumption women were self-evidently less intelligent than men; that assumption warped all their supposedly objective science (I get into this and later sexual-difference theories a lot in Undead Sexist Cliches).

Victorians believed in spiritualism, phrenology, aether and that masturbation could reduce you to idiocy (draining too much bodily energy to think). They believed in a variety of psychic powers loosely classed as “mesmerism,” as Alison Winter details in her book Mesmerism.

Mesmeric theories are the ones most relevant to Questionable Minds, though by the time the novel begins, they’re looked on as crude, clumsy efforts to tap vril, the psychic energy that fuels mentalists’ powers. Lombroso comes up when someone describes Edward Hyde (yes, the Mr. Hyde) as looking like one of Lombroso’s evolutionary throwbacks. And Theosophy founder Helena Blavatsky helped work out the current system for developing mental powers (as I posted about before) — so perhaps her mysticism isn’t as much mumb0-jumbo as in our world.

If/when I write the sequel (let’s see how well this book does), it’ll be interesting to explore more of the Victorians’ odd beliefs.

#SFWApro. Covers by Samantha Collins (top) and Kemp Ward (bottom).

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The law of Proteus: all things change

When I started October, one of my goals was to push my daily output up to six hours of writing from 5.5. Not a huge increase, but an extra 2.5 hours a week isn’t anything to sneeze at.

I’m a little surprised that it worked: I’ve been able to keep up work at that pace, taking breaks so that I don’t fry my mind before work ends for the day. Though the distraction such as dragging Snowdrop to the vet

mean I’ve wound up putting in less total time each week than I normally do. Still, putting in six hours a day in October — far fewer events scheduled — should produce good results.

But as I’ve mentioned before, when you’re living with other people, time management is never smooth. As TYG’s job became increasingly demanding the past couple of years, she’s been getting up earlier — easier to get stuff done when nobody at work is awake to demand help — and going to be earlier. Now she’s in a job which is much less of a pressure cooker. She’s staying awake later and getting up later. Having adjusted to her early cycle, I’m now having to adjust back.

Well, not “have” to. But I like going to bed with her and snuggling, and so I’m staying up later. As I can’t get my body to get up much later — that’s always been a weakness of mine — I sometimes wind up shortchanged on sleep. Then, because TYG’s rising later, we take the dogs out later (dawn shifting later in the morning plays a role in that too) which pushes the time to start work later in the morning.

The best solution would be to start work in the stretch between me finishing breakfast and the dogs coming down. That’s hard to make myself do because I have no idea how much time I’ll have and it’s difficult to start something knowing I might have to cut it short at any second. That may be what it takes, though. I’ll give it a shot next week.

Workwise, this was a routine week. A bunch of articles of Leaf, another of those accounting articles — and my client absolutely gushing about how much they liked last week’s article. That’s always nice. Oh, and I got a request to do an advance review for Questionable Minds so I sent that out Tuesday. Now I just hope they like it …#SFWApro. Cover by Samantha Collins, all rights remain with current holder.

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Clawed by Cats! Clobbered by Computers!

No, not literally clawed, thank goodness. Neither Snowdrop nor Wisp seems inclined to get physical, even when the dogs get in their grill. But Snowdrop did tear up a chunk of writing time for me this week.

As our cats live outdoors most of the time, catching them for the annual checkup is hard. We caught Wisp in July and now it’s Snowdrop’s turn. We couldn’t get him last week but I’d already made a backup appointment for Tuesday the 13th. Monday night, while I was hosting my Shut Up and Write Zoom group, TYG called me down. Some years back she bought a pole-and-lasso contraption to catch Wisp, but it never worked — until now. However, ensnaring Snowdrop in the loop did not get him into the cage for transport so she needed my help.

Eventually we caged him, but not before he’d astonished up by running up the blinds on the French doors and then up the outside of a bookcase. Of course, once he was caught we were in for hours of plaintive meowing, and more in the morning. So my regular morning routine went out the window, plus I was the one who had to take him to the vet (my freelancing schedule is way more flexible than TYG’s time).

It used to be they’d tranquilize the cats before examining them, but they’ve moved away from that now. Which is good, except that meant I stuck around with Snowdrop instead of coming back hours later. You can see him below, looking at me and hoping for rescue. He didn’t get it.To my surprise, he didn’t put up a fight at all, but let the vets examine him, give him his shots and so forth. He’s in great shape (yay!) and not overweight (yay again!). I took him home, then we let him out in the backyard. He didn’t bear us a grudge and was quite happy to accept petting later.

Now, as to the computer: my laptop has been suffering from keys sticking for a while but it’s been getting really bad lately. I cleaned out the keyboard with compressed air but it didn’t improve things enough, so Monday I ordered a new laptop. Arrival: Wednesday.

Or so I thought. Because I added memory, they couldn’t just take one off the rack and the delivery date is Oct. 5. I didn’t realize that — they didn’t exactly highlight that detail — so Tuesday afternoon after getting back from the vet I just blew work off, ditto Wednesday morning. Why work with a glitchy keyboard when I’d have a smooth-operating computer so soon?

That’s a couple of days I won’t get back. I’m annoyed at my inefficiency, though I still finished one of my paying accounting articles. And I got most of my advance promotional work for Questionable Minds done Monday. I also posted at Atomic Junkshop about the New Mutants team and Richard Powers’ cover art.For really good news, I got my payments from Draft2Digital for a couple of books that sold this summer. And my golem article came out in Jews in Popular Science Fiction at last.I haven’t read it yet but the table of contents looks interesting.Being published makes up for a lot. Have a great weekend everyone.

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Questionable Minds: Meet the villain

We meet the primary villain of Questionable Minds at the end of the first chapter. First we encounter my protagonist, Simon, at a tense dinner party. Then we meet Polly Nichols, a broken down woman desperate to turn a trick so she’ll have money to pay for a bed for the night.

Unlike the real Polly Nichols — the first victim of Jack the Ripper — this Polly is a mentalist, a “human telegraph” with the power to read thoughts. Trouble is, Victorian snobbery, as I’ve mentioned before, believes the lower classes are fit only to wield gross physical powers such as TK or firestarting (AKA levitation and incendiary). A woman at the rock-bottom of the social order isn’t to be trusted with telepathic ability so she was turned out of the Academy with only a little training.

The result? Polly has a half-formed ability that only picks up thoughts about her, and only negative ones. Her power amplifies even the slightest, fleeting touch of resentment or discomfort and convinces her she’s despised. She’s alienated from everyone, and she’s miserable.

Then she meets Jack and falls in love. Instantly. She happily follows him to a dark spot on the street where he butchers her (I do not use the term casually. There’ll be a trigger warning for violence against women). She’s too happy to resist.

Scotland Yard’s Mentalist Investigation Department initially turns down the Nichols case: there’s no sign that Jack used any sort of mental powers and that’s their field of interest. Simon, however, has the freedom to investigate unofficially and learns some strangely suspicious details. Still, the MID has bigger fish to fry, a telegrapher who’s obtained documents about important international negotiations — the odd murder of one mentalist is hardly in the same league. But then a second murder happens. Psychic probing reveals the victim was in love, so in love she let the murderer kill her. And it’s only getting worse from there.

In the first “finished” version of the novel, I had Jack’s POV crop up in multiple scenes throughout the book, giving some explanation of his motive and showing his mindset. The brutality of the killings is a ruse, to distract the police from his real agenda — but Jack’s POV scenes show he’s lying to himself. He’s a raging misogynist and he’s getting off on cutting women up.

That still comes across, I hope, despite my cutting out most of Jack’s POV scenes. In the years since I wrote the earlier version, I’ve come to dislike villain POVs. Not always, but with serial killers in particular it’s pretty tedious stuff. His superiority, his gloating about the sheeple around him who are his unwitting prey, etc. My guy’s definitely not like that, but even so I wasn’t sure the scenes were necessary. I cut almost all of them.

That’s about all I can say without giving away major spoilers, so I hope it’s enough.

#SFWApro. Cover by Samantha Collins.

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Questionable Minds: the women of my cast

The one thing I don’t like about Questionable Minds (now three months from release date!) is that it’s so white and straight.

I wrote the original manuscript in the late 1990s. Back in those days I didn’t think much about diversity and it shows. I have some Chinese supporting characters and that’s about it.

When I decided to self-publish I thought about revising it but truthfully that was more work than I was willing to do: the goal was to get the book out in the world, not work on it for a couple more years. And it would take at least that much: doing a good job with a POC or gay character in the Victorian age would be a serious challenge, at least for me. If it sells enough to justify a sequel, I’ll do better in the next book.

On the plus side, I do have several female characters who play large roles in the book alongside Sir Simon Taggart, Bart.

Ann Taggart is Simon’s daughter. Since Agnes’ death Simon’s been devoted to her, a little too much by Victorian standards of parenting. She’s a cheerful, adventurous child whose mentalist power — object-reading — manifested early. Scotland Yard’s Mentalist Investigation Department has occasionally called her in for help, which thrills her: much as Simon tells her she’ll grow up to find a good husband, her dream is to work for the MID. It’s one of her few points of conflict with her papa.

The other is that her power flares up randomly. Simon lives on edge that she’ll touch something or walk somewhere that shows her the true state of affairs between her parents.

Janet McIntyre is Ann’s governess and Simon’s lover. She grew up with a widowed father, a minister in the Presbyterian church who didn’t approve of her independent streak. She left home in her late teens, wound up working as a thief and pickpocket and became a really good one after her powers of levitation (as they called TK in my setting) manifested.  One night she picked the wrong pocket: the owner began beating her to death when Simon rushed in to save her. Something began that night, though neither of them’s willing to use the L-word to describe it.

While it doesn’t play a large role in the book, Janet is well educated and makes an excellent governess. She doesn’t tell Simon she’s also teaching Ann things like how to escape from a locked room, should the occasion arise.

Miss Grey is right hand to Inspector Hudnall at the MID and therefore Ann’s idol. One of her ancestors helped found the Bow Street Runners, London’s proto-police force; her dream is to show that a police force can be an asset to society, not a bunch of thugs no better than the criminals they watch over (yes, I’m aware these days that may leave a sour taste in people’s mouths). Grey is not her name: as her well-bred family would be ashamed at her choice of career (or any career) she chose a pseudonym to protect them.

While Miss Grey is clairvoyant, she’s more valuable to the MID as an expert on mentalism. She’s worked to know the many varieties of mentalist power, including the rarer ones; she also reads novels and penny dreadfuls with mentalist stories so that she knows what the public thinks mentalism can do.

Last but not least is Madam Sara, the sinister scientist and criminal I blogged about previously. She and Simon met during an encounter with one of the various cults that sprung up around mentalism in the belief it’s magic more than science. Together, they escaped being sacrificed. Despite her shady ways, she’s a valuable ally; she finds it useful to occasionally have Ann object-read something. Simon trusts Sara to do what she says, but not an inch beyond that.

More Questionable Minds background stuff soon.

#SFWApro. Cover by Sam Collins.

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I changed my routine. You won’t believe what happened next!

Okay, not anything shocking. But this seems to be one of those clickbait headlines and I can always use more clicks, so …

Last Thursday and Friday I accepted a bunch of articles for the Leaf content provider. However there’s a three day deadline to finishing once I accept them and for a Thursday acceptance that meant Sunday. Much as I hate breaking up my weekend, I decided to take Saturday off, work Sunday, then take Tuesday off instead. Coupled with some personal distractions, I felt very disorganized this entire week.

Nevertheless, it was productive. I got about fourteen Leaf articles done, though it took me longer than it should have — the disorganization, I imagine.

I also went over the corrections to Death Is Like a Box of Chocolates and responded; mostly they were solid choices by the editor. But now there’s a final set — I probably won’t get to them until Monday.

I also completed Phase One of the index, which is going through the manuscript and putting everything in alphabetical order. I prefer doing this before submitting my manuscripts because no matter how carefully I proofread, I always find more errors. That wasn’t an option this time, as I had to push to complete the book by deadline as it was. I feel embarrassed seeing all the errors now.

It went quickly but now comes Phase Two, where I put in the page numbers. It’s slower and absolutely mind-numbing but it has to be done. Plus, of course, proofing the final copy of the text.

It’ll be a busy rest-of-the-month and the promotional effort for Questionable Minds will drag as a result. But first things first.#SFWApro. Bottom cover by Sam Collins, rights to images remain with current holders.

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Questionable Minds: Meet the Protagonist

“Simon Taggart’s plunge into the abyss happened in an instant.

Col. Moran, seated at the dining table on Simon’s left, had said something to the Duke of Falsworth about a fellow hunter Moran had known in India committing suicide. Falsworth snidely observed that given the man’s debts, hanging himself had been the only possible solution.

And suddenly Simon was standing in the drawing room again. Staring up at Agnes in her white nightgown, hanging from the ceiling with her tongue protruding, her face blackened. Rage consumed him at the memory, rage at the men who’d brought about his wife’s death. Pearson Bartlett, mesmerist. The Guvnor, who’d given Bartlett his orders. And behind them, the unknown man who’d paid to have Agnes slain.”

So Questionable Minds opens. As you can tell, Simon is not a happy man.

Up until Agnes’ death, Simon’s life was good. The Taggarts are baronets, which is very low-raked as aristocrats go, below even earls. The Taggart baronetcy is old, however, which gives Simon confidence. So does his wealth: the Taggarts are good at marrying rich and Simon’s American mother was a particularly wealthy heiress. Life peers (the title can’t be passed on to the next generation) are often insecure in their new status; a Taggart is never insecure.

Simon’s marriage to Agnes was to further the family fortune. Like so many aristocratic marriages in that era, it was understood that once Agnes provided a male heir “and a spare” she’d be free to take other lovers; he, of course, could take them a lot sooner. It never sunk in that Agnes was in love with him. Finally she took drastic steps to make him aware of it (no details, they involve a major spoiler). This didn’t change his feelings towards her but he did restrain himself from sleeping around. He was still a bit of a flirt, though, so when he came home one night and saw Agnes had apparently killed herself, Simon blamed himself. Clearly he’d given her the wrong idea; in despair she’d committed suicide.

Fortunately Inspector Hudnall of Scotland Yard spotted the signs that she hadn’t acted of her own free will. Bartlett had compelled her to do it. Why? He’d been paid a sizable sum, funneled through the Guv’nor, the mysterious overlord of London crime. Nobody besides the Guv’nor could say who’d put up the money.

From that moment on, Simon has had two goals. One is to find the Guv’nor and learn who had Agnes murdered. It’s not easy: the Guv’nor is Professor Moriarty and even Sherlock Holmes took years to learn that. In my world, Moriarty is ten times as cautious, setting up his organization so that even human telegraphs (i.e., mind readers) can’t learn who he is.

Simon’s second goal, although he doesn’t really think of it as such, is to be a better person. He gives generously to charity, helps investigate crimes even when they don’t involve the Guv’nor and if he ever marries, he intends to marry for love. Though as his mother reminds him, that may not be practical: the Taggart estate and title pass to sons only, and Agnes’ only child is young Ann. If Simon doesn’t beget an heir, his obnoxious, idiot cousin becomes the next baronet and probably spends Hollowcroft, the family estate, into bankruptcy.

Simon’s biggest asset in fighting crime — the reason Scotland Yard puts up with him — is that he has something unique: mental shields. Telegraphs can’t read his mind. Mesmerists can’t control him. Clairvoyants don’t see him. Vampires, mentalists who drain mental energy from other, can’t affect Simon. That’s how he discovered his strange gift: fighting the vampire Asquith Varney, he survived the latter’s attack, then eventually learned why.

The reaction to his gift is mixed. Scotland Yard respects it but many people think of it as a deformity. Mental power is clearly the next great step in human evolution; sure, not everyone has powers yet but to be completely cut off from the evolutionary advance? What did Simon do in his past life that he deserved this curse? He gets several letters a week from spiritualists and others offering to “cure” his condition. But from his point of view, it’s a blessing.

His biggest weakness is that his trauma over finding Agnes hanging manifests in extreme anger. He’s violently assaulted members of the Guv’nor’s organization in hopes of beating information out of them. When the bad guy threatens Ann in Questionable Minds, Simon’s response is not a rational one.

Simon’s biggest fear is that his anger and his urge for revenge are consuming him: if he had to choose between capturing the Guv’nor and saving Ann or his mother, he worries that he’d let them die to bring himself peace. Dealing with his trauma and his fear is the emotional arc of Questionable Minds, just as stopping Jack the Ripper is the plot arc.

Next week: the women of the book.

#SFWApro. Cover by Sam Collins.

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It’s a trap — and I walked right into it!

Not really trapped but I do perhaps feel a little hemmed in. As it’s by good stuff and I had a good week, perhaps it’s more that I’m a bird in a gilded cage?

Yesterday McFarland mailed me the PDF of The Aliens Are Here for me to proof, edit and index. This is quite a job, especially the unimaginable tedium of indexing. Due by early September (the book comes out late that month). And wouldn’t you know, after a couple of months of quiet, Leaf suddenly has a ton of articles available. And one of my other clients wants me to do an accounting article.

I think this will rule out any chance of writing any more fiction this month. But that’s okay: I knew the proofs would arrive, I know from experience how much time it takes so I was prepared to drop everything. Well, except the paying stuff.

Oh, and I have a story I need to approve the edits on. I got an email Monday offering to buy Death Is Like a Box of Chocolates and of course I said yes. I got the email today saying they’d done the edits, would I take a look please? But hey, that’s a job I’ll do with pleasure.

I’ve also got some work to do on promoting Questionable Minds. That’ll have to wait, but it can’t wait too long.

But that’s a boatload of sudden deadlines when I normally don’t have any. I’m not really complaining because it’s all good, I just wish the timing had been spaced out. Still, having too much work as a freelancer is better than not having enough work.

Prior to everything heating up, I went over Don’t Pay the Ferryman and I think it’s in good shape. I’m ready to give it a final edit, but obviously not right now. And I finished this draft of Impossible Takes a Little Longer. It’s not looking as good but a first shot at replotting went surprisingly easily. Possibly the problems are more fixable than I thought. Again, not something to tackle right now.

Oh, I also had a filling adjusted yesterday. And posted a couple of articles at Atomic Junkshop, one on the debut of Marvel’s SHIELD and another on comic reboots that missed the point.

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The Dismal Diarrhea of Defeat!

I thought I would end July with a productive week.

Alas, not so much.

I spent last weekend at ConGregate, a Winston-Salem con, and had a great time. I was on eight or nine panels, chatted with a lot of NC writers I know and discovered an excellent coffee/tea shop across the street (really good loose leaf tea). The hotel restaurant was reasonably priced. I also picked up some good used books at a sale table (two Philip K. Dick, one Andre Norton) though that kept me from buying anything new from my friends.

There was also a nice moment on one panel — I forget which one — in which I was commenting on how many of my stories get turned down of late, and John Hartness of Falstaff Books commented “and yet, you’re in this side of the table as a published author.” I think I needed to hear that.

Oh, and I sold one of my books after one of the attendees heard me give a reading from The Wodehouse Murder Case.

I came home Sunday and decided to devote Monday to various tasks around the house, such as finding a contractor to fix a small siding problem. Then back to work Tuesday. In hindsight, not the best call … and not productive on the task side either. Neither of the contractors I asked for quotes were free to do the job.

Monday afternoon, Trixie began demanding to go out and crap every couple of hours. The poop wasn’t as runny as in some times past, but it was semisolid at best, and in remarkably small quantities every time. Knowing this could keep up a while, I volunteered to sleep with Trixie in the spare bedroom (the shot of her in the laundry basket has no relation to her being ill, it just looks cute) so that TYG could get some sleep. Sure enough, every couple of hours Trixie decided she needed to go out. I’d thought I might be able to work in between walkies as I wouldn’t get back to sleep but various matters distracted me so no sleep and no work.

Needless to say, I was a total wreck Tuesday, unfit for work; besides sleeping I think I might have done some blogging, but not much else. We tried making an appointment for Trixie but had to settle for Wednesday. Tuesday night passed without problems and I slept like a log. So soundly I woke up late which left me off-balance the rest of the day. I know it’s a weakness but I really need a couple of hours before the dogs join me downstairs if I’m to get my head in the game.

As Trixie seemed fine we canceled the appointment, then guess what happened Wednesday night? I slept through it with an Ambien — I was going to drive the car to our dealer for some servicing and I wanted to be awake for that — but we canceled that and made another appointment for Trixie that day. The doctor decided the antibiotics from her UTI might be the cause. We have her on a concentrated probiotic regimen for a couple of days. Last night she slept with me in the spare room again, just in case. She had no problems but as often happens the night after I take Ambien, I didn’t sleep well.

So the long and short of it is I got next to nothing done. What I did accomplish included proofing the golem article I worked on last year and doing some promotional work for Questionable Minds. I signed up for a blog tour to promote it so I spent Thursday getting a lot of details for that in place. We’ll see if it gets results down the road.

I didn’t get my exercise routines or most other routines done this week either. Though looking over my July goals, I got way more of them done than usual, and all the important ones done. That’s cool, even if this week doesn’t feel that way.

#SFWApro. Cover by Jack Kirby, all rights remain with current holder.


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Minds over matter: the development of mental powers in Questionable Minds

The key development that turned the world of Questionable Minds into a steampunk setting happened about 17 years earlier, when Edward Bulwer-Lytton encountered the Vril-Ya.

In our world, Bulwer-Lytton is best known for inspiring the Bulwer-Lytton Contest for writing a terrible parodic opening line. He is not well thought of. Back in the Victorian age he was quite successful, with a string of popular novels including Last Days of Pompeii, Paul Clifford and a fictional account of the subterranean, psionic Vril-Ya, The Coming Race (I had to make a conscious effort to remember my novel’s characters will not sneer at him the way we do now). In the world of Questionable Minds he encountered the subterranean Vril-Ya for real and returned to the surface with knowledge of their psionic technology. He used this to create the first Lytton Rods, which enable people who have latent psi-energy — not everyone does — to tap their powers. He is now Viscount Claren.

Around 1880, Madame Blavatsky, the founder of theosophy, took things a step further. Guided by her cosmic masters (who didn’t exist in the real world), she showed it was possible to train and develop mental abilities without a Lytton Rod. This was a major game changer, obviously, getting her a baronetcy.I didn’t want things to sound too much like contemporary SF so I worked on the terminology. Psi power in general is known as mesmerism. The various types include levitation (TK), mesmerism (mind control), human telegraphy (mind probes and mind-to-mind communication), incendiary (pyrokinetic), electrician (casting small amounts of electrical power), healing and clairvoyance (what it sounds like). There are also multiple odd powers that have been recorded once or twice but no more.

As Bulwer-Lytton was English, he gave his research to the British crown. Blavatsky built on his work. As a result, England is the only nation with a significant population of mentalists though this hasn’t had a major impact on the world stage yet. For the English, this is just proof God is an Englishman; they can’t imagine their monopoly won’t last. Indeed, China has already developed its own forms of mental disciplines, which revolutionaries there are using to work against the British Empire.

The development of mentalism is widely seen as the next step up in human evolution. There’s no “kill the mutie” hatred here, but there is a lot of unease around class and gender issues. One aristocrat complains early on that marrying a mentalist if you’re not one is insane — how can a man be master in his own house if a woman can just levitate him out the window? And England has developed clear, arbitrary rules for relating class and mentalist power. Among the upper classes, physical power such as levitation is an embarrassment; telegraphy or mesmerism among the lower orders is a threat.

How this will affect society by, say, 1914 and the start of the Great War, I do not know. If the book sells, however, I’ll have an incentive to figure it out.

#SFWApro. Cover by Sam Collins


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