Frontiers of the Mind

Someone to Watch Over Me — Tricia Sullivan


I find Tricia Sullivan’s work interesting (even if I do not always like it) and collect her books when I can. Unfortunately, only a few of her books have moved to e (and even then they can be difficult to purchase [1]). Her non-e books aren’t easy to find [2], which is why it took me so long to get around to reviewing a second Sullivan. To my great pleasure, I recently came across a copy of 1997’s Someone To Watch Over Me, a book which had been on my possibles list for the next Sullivan review. So … After an all too long delay, my second Sullivan review.

For reasons that seemed sensible at the time, Adrien Reyes is a “trans” [3])—someone who allows a Watcher, in Reyes’ case one known as C, to lurk in their minds via satellite link. Reyes is C’s remotely piloted drone when it suits C’s needs. Although this is a pretty creepy relationship, Reyes is convinced that this is a relatively safe thing to do, because fundamental limitations in the mind/network interface limit the degree to which C can control Reyes. This belief is about to be rendered false thanks to inexorable technological progress, progress that Reyes himself is unwittingly helping to bring to fruition.

As the book opens, a courier mission (gone wrong for reasons Reyes does not really understand) leaves Reyes battered and bleeding in Zagreb. Because he was engaged in criminal activities, he cannot visit a hospital, which might alert authorities. Thanks to the intervention of a musician named Sabrina Lazarich, Reyes narrowly avoids being the protagonist of a very short story about an American bleeding to death in Croatia. Sabrina’s curiosity and kindness have prompted what is perhaps the worst decision she will ever make.

Reyes was moving something called I from one place to another. I is an exciting—maybe horrifying is an apter term—new interface, one that will in theory allow Watchers to do more than just monitor and sometimes control their trans. Watchers will be able to overwrite the trans mind entirely. For C, trapped in a dying body, I is an escape. For Reyes, it is a trap—or it would be if following the most recent beating he had not decided to leave C’s service, thereby denying C the healthy body C planned—needed—to commandeer for their own.

Desperation calls for bold gambits. Thanks to Reyes, Sabrina is now on C’s radar and C has minions and catspaws other than Reyes to carry out C’s plans. She understands even less of what is going on than does the hapless Reyes, so she has very little hope of evading C’s targeting. Barring some unlikely intervention, the next time that Reyes and Sabrina encounter each other, the person staring out of Sabrina’s eyes will not be Sabrina.

Sabrina is a sympathetic and energetic character, not the sort of female who would wilt and wait for Reyes to save her. She may not have the keenly honed survival instincts one might expect from someone who, as a child, lived through the eighty-seven day Battle of Vukovar, but she does show an impressive capacity for improvisation when it is necessary.

Speaking of the Croatian War of Independence (1991–1995), I should note that other authors have used this conflict as a convenient backstory for characters who need to have a modern war in their past. I greatly prefer Sullivan’s use of this backstory to John Barnes’ vision of the children of such conflicts as irredeemably sullied.

I should also note that I wasn’t keen on Sabrina’s comment that “rape is a door.” To some people that would sound like license or excuse. However, perhaps it is Sabrina’s survivor’s mindset that explains how she can deal with C’s machinations without collapsing in a terrified funk.

Normally I take an, on the whole, positive view of new technologies. For instance, focusing on the whole potential fall-of-civilization aspect of nuclear explosives seems needlessly negative. Why, that same basic technology could allow us to create only moderately radioactive harbours and canal systems in a surprisingly short time! However, the new technology featured in Someone to Watch Over Me does not meet even my low standards for utility versus danger. The remote-control tech moves very rapidly from being creepily voyeuristic (as in 1995’s Strange Days) into being utterly horrifying. The rich and powerful will be able to commandeer the bodies of the poor and powerless at will. I wave my cane and yell: “This new technology should be killed with fire, along with everyone working on it and financing it!”

Sometimes I like Sullivan’s books, sometimes I don’t. I disliked Maul, but liked elements of Dreaming in Smoke, even though it was overall a somewhat difficult read. Before I started reading this book, I had no expectation of liking or disliking it. Verdict? I didn’t dislike it as a whole, although I did dislike many of the characters (who, admittedly, are criminals, and not of the lovable, might-at-any-moment-break-out-into-song-and/or-a-dance-routine variety of criminals ). It was a mildly interesting timepass. If you need a timepass, this might be the one for you.

1: Actually, now that I have a Kobo I can buy from the Kobo store. At some point there will be a review of a Sullivan from this century. I did try to buy a Shadowboxer ebook direct from her publisher, but the sale didn’t go through for various reasons which I could not fathom before I got too frustrated and bored to continue.

2: Because I insist on using archaic methods clearly unsuited to this ever-changing world in which we’re living.

3: According to Wikipedia, the term transgender was first used in 1965, in psychiatry textbook. By the mid-1970s, trans had become a fairly well-known slang term for both transgender and transsexual persons. This account is not universally accepted, but it is clear that the term was in use before Sullivan’s book was published. Did she know of this usage and ignore it when she adopted the term trans for a person who accepted remote control? Or was this slang term not in wide use outside certain communities?

Please note: comments will be read-only for the next week or two; Livefyre has ceased service, and we are doing some site maintenance.