My husband often buys me books he thinks I will like. He’s really good at picking them, but as a result I end up with quite a stack of books and it takes me a while to get around to reading them. I therefore picked up this book without remembering quite what grabbed me about it when I received it. As soon as I started reading it, I couldn’t believe that I had let it languish for so long on the ‘to read’ pile.
The story is set in the near-ish future when Biology departments in Universities and subsequently commercial companies are able to project the consciousness of young human ‘phenomenauts’ into the 3D-printed organic bodies of animals. The phenomenauts are able to feel what it is like to be a dolphin or a spider or fox (to the extent that this is possible while still remaining human), experience their senses and move around in a real environment in the company of real animals. If anything could hit all my wish fulfilment buttons at once, it is this idea.
Initially, the phenomenauts’ job is to study and monitor animals, but the companies are starting to develop the experience for tourism. Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated by animals, and wanted to be able to occasionally take off my humanity like a coat and experience life as an animal. I do a much more hands-off and objective version of this professionally, and every colleague I’ve told about this book (and believe me, I haven’t been able to shut up about it) has said that it would be amazing to be able to do that. So you see where I am coming from.
The story follows the Katherine North of the title (or Kit, as she prefers to be known) who - at the age of 19 - is a veteran among phenomenauts at ShenCorp. They employ young children because their brains are plastic enough to cope with the body shock of projecting in to radically different bodies and sensory systems. Emma Geen describes beautifully what that experience might be like, and does an excellent job with the biological detail while leaving enough room for speculation and some gorgeously poetic moments. She also shows how spending so much time in other ways of being changes the phenomenauts. The altered perspective changes their own ways of being as humans. For example, Kit spends quite a bit of time as a fox, and as a human finds herself more aware of dominance behaviours, territoriality and so on among other humans. It also makes her acutely aware of the realms of information (like smell or ultraviolet-sensitive vision) that are a closed book to humans.
The book weaves an exciting thriller in among Kit’s phenomenaut experiences, but I won’t provide any spoilers about that. It is a gripping book and one that I have often found myself thinking about since I finished it. Emma Geen apparently read Psychology and Philosophy at University, and that shows itself in the many fascinating ideas she presents the reader with. I will certainly be reading it again.
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