My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In a near-perfect society, the ugly Magdala bides her time on the edges, waiting for the small luxuries she allows herself & to eventually die unnoticed. That is until the charismatic Claudio enters her life & presents her with more than she could have ever dreamed: beauty &, with it, power. Little does she know the price that she must pay for this fantasy.
If I could, I would give this as a fuck-you-very-much present to the character Roman DeBeers. Because the story certainly comes across as if Tanith Lee wrote it on a fit of pique, where every justification she gave for the story & its structure is driven by “because I say so.” Why is this story about a futuristic society presented as a book? Because it’s a part of an academic presentation & because I say so. Why is the subject avatars & displaced consciousness? Because the idea of changing personas can be used in unhealthy ways & because I say so. Why should readers who like “hard sci-fi” be interested in what is ultimately a story about relationships & self-perception? Because we should not “ignore the nakedness of humanity before the huge-wheeled vehicle of progress”, oh, and BECAUSE I SAY SO.
While the story itself is captivating (it is really more of a traditional noir story reskinned with tech), I found myself drawn to Forest’s meta-ness & how the main character flits in & out of awareness of the greater forces around her. I found myself not moved by Magdala’s struggle to define & redefine herself through her trials but by the pure idealism presented in the epilogue. It is a truly authentic statement about why the arts, literature, & chosen illusion remain important in a society that is constantly looking forward & outstripping its reach with cold purpose. But I’ve also read other stories by Lee & I know that her idealism is never starry-eyed & is always waiting to be grounded by reality. I loved it & will probably reread it soon to pick apart its structure with my new insights.