Proof of Concept
Author: Gwyneth Jones
Published: April 11, 2017
Rating: 3 / 5
For Those Who Enjoyed: Never Let Me Go, Arrival, Signs, Star Wars, H.P. Lovecraft, H.G. Wells, Apollo 13
I read the first two chapters of this novel and was immediately into it, despite the fact I had no clue what was going on. I was under the impression that everything going on would become clearer as the plot unfolded. That’s… not exactly what happened. In fact, I’m even more confused than when I started out.
Proof of Concept follows Kir, a girl saved from post-apocalyptic Earth by a super-genius scientist who puts an Artificial Intelligence computer in her brain. For some reason, because this happened when she was still very young, this stunted her growth and I suppose, her ability to conceptualise everyday situations. Either that, or the character development and explanations within the narrative are so flat, Jones misses the point entirely… Anyway, Kir sets off on this experiment expedition to subspace, where they’re looking for somewhere new for humanity to settle. That’s barely what I was able to decipher from this plot and even that I’m unsure of.
This novel feels like what would happen if a scientist, with no previous background in writing fiction, wrote a book. There are people, doing sciency things, and the readers are just expected to understand what the author means with very little to go on. Because Kir’s so emotionally stunted and insular, we don’t get the full scope of exactly what’s going on in terms of anything happening around her. Which is maybe the point. But this suffers from the same issues as Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, as well as any novel involving characters completely lacking in social cues. There are too many instances where Jones drops an interesting little nugget of information and I want to delve into it further, but then it’s gone again, and I’m left with nothing to go on. I have no clue what this experiment they’re doing is. I don’t understand the population control situation. I don’t have any grasp on the simulated intimacy that apparently goes on between coworkers… I just don’t understand.
I think the biggest reason this narrative struggles so hard with it’s plot is because it’s way too short. The plot and world building is stretched way too thin across a 175 page novella. There is not enough room there to fully develop characters and the experiment they’re doing, as well as a full breakdown of the futuristic setting. This is something I find most science fiction novels suffer from. Either there’s not enough background information for casual readers to latch onto or there’s far too much to fully appreciate the plot. With Proof of Concept, it feels like Jones took the iceberg principle, wherein an author should develop characters and world building as much as possible, but only show what the readers absolutely must know to understand the plot, and cut out far too much of all her development. She may know exactly what all her characters’ motivations are and how they relate to each other, and what kind of dystopian world we’re in, and how the science works, but she doesn’t share that with the reader. She simply assumes that we already know.
We can’t read your mind, Gwyneth Jones. You have to spell it out for us.
Another really weird tonal thing going on is the fact that this is a murder mystery? I don’t read many murder mysteries (haven’t read a single Agatha Christie novel in my life…) but if I did, I’d want to be at least emotionally attached to these people before they die. There’s no buildup and no real character development for anyone who died, so I didn’t particularly care if they lived or not. It wasn’t shocking, it was just there.
I went into this expecting there to be some Lovecraftian spookiness to it. And I think Jones was really reaching for it, but didn’t quite reach the mark. I was expecting some The Descent level scare-fests. They’re going deep, deep down into these caves, where maybe there are some pre-civilisation humanoids living down there. I wanted people to be picked off one by one that way. I wanted the AI in Kir’s head to take over and really mess things up in a disturbing way without her realising he’s controlling her mind. Give me some “I’m sorry, I can’t let you do that” realness! That’s what I wanted out of this novel!
I wanted a straight up space science horror novel and that’s not what this was at all.