Mississippi Blues, Kathleen Ann Goonan (1997)
Review by Matthew Montgomery
In 1994’s Queen City Jazz, Kathleen Ann Goonan attempts to meld the improvisational structure of jazz with the science fiction novel. More ambitious than simply offering nanotechnology as a gee-whiz cool thing (or novum as per Darko Suvin), Goonan’s debut puts stress on the generic limitations of the sci-fi field, pushing the novel into different realms of narrative possibility. Her 1997 sequel, Mississippi Blues, takes the world the first novel laboured at and presses further the melding of form and content, taking Mississippi Blues into new territories, both literal and figurative.
Mississippi Blues picks up almost directly where Queen City Jazz leaves off: Verity gives up control of Cincinnati and forces the city to relinquish nan-facilitated control of the citizens. Without the nan forcing them to act out the roles assigned by the corrupted intelligence at the heart of the city, the people are without purpose. Verity instills in them a nanotech-induced mission called The Norleans Plague, which coerces people into travelling down the Ohio River to New Orleans, essentially acting out the journey Huck Finn takes on. Commanding a nan-built riverboat, Verity takes them on a hallucinogenic voyage through a post-collapse America.
Instead of jazz as a structuring metaphor, Goonan looks to the blues to inform the thematics of the sequel. The novel does not shy away from the racial politics of the blues; instead, she reminds the reader that the blues has a complex political ancestry, including the songs of the slaves. Goonan uses the ignorance of her characters as an avenue for expounding on the dark sides of American history, all while skilfully weaving an intricate thematic web. Mississippi Blues is intensely focused on the conceptual potential of freedom and slavery. Verity has freed the people from a nan-induced slavery by shackling them to another nan-induced feverdream. Simultaneously, the novel asks whether this future society can ever be free of American history, can ever rebuild without the looming shadow of slavery and racism.
Goonan blends these strings of thematic investigation with sensitive characterizations of Verity and the other people on the riverboat. The structure of the novel, with its lackadaisical meandering down the river, allows Goonan the space to let her characters breathe and develop. Frequently, the narrative slows to let some backstory fill in, usually of the heartbreaking variety, as no character emerges unscathed by the trauma of society’s collapse. Goonan’s sensitivity towards the feelings and motivations of her lead characters remains of one her greatest strengths in this novel and the preceding one.
However, a problem from Queen City Jazz rears its head in Mississippi Blues. In order to prolong the plotting, Goonan relies on avoiding the reveal of information. Verity, raised in isolation, is almost completely unaware of how society has collapsed and how nanotechnology went from saviour to oppressor. She is constantly paired with characters who do know, but won’t provide answers, despite direct questions from Verity. It’s similar to the frustration presented by Dumbledore: people just won’t provide straight answers, leading to my frustration and frequent exasperation. It’s a delaying tactic and a stronger narrative might have provided an organic reason for withholding information beyond a character point blank refusing to divulge.
Mississippi Blues is a dense read, both in its execution and its worldbuilding. Even after reading two volumes in this quartet, I’m still somewhat unsure of the backstory’s chronology. Likewise, I’m fuzzy on many supporting characters’ motivations and position in the novel. An effect of an episodic structure, too many people are introduced and quickly dropped, their impact dulled by the frequency with which this happens. Still, Mississippi Blues is an engaging and thoughtful read, glittering with narrative and thematic ambition, anchored by some strong prose and confident characterization.
For more information, see A Lay of the Land.