Nirvana by J.R. Stewart. Virtual reality, bees, grief and politics

Nirvana - J.R. Stewart

 

Thanks to the publishers (Blue Moon Publishers) and to Net Galley for the gift of an advance copy of this book. I have read that it is undergoing major revisions, so it might be that some of the issues mentioned are no longer there if you get the final edition.

Nirvana, despite the name, is a dystopian Young Adult novel. It is set in a future where bees have disappeared and nature as we know it has gone; there are a few places left where people live (the novel takes place in Canada, around Toronto, although there are hints throughout the book that the situation might be slightly different in other places), and the Hexagon (yes, I know) controls “security” (read intrudes in everybody’s privacy, destroys all books and keeps a tight hold on everybody’s activities, words and imagination). Larissa, a young woman whose husband (a very talented scientist) disappeared during a mysterious mission six months ago is not ready to accept his death and refuses to let go.

The novel mostly focuses on Larissa, although the third person point of view sometimes shares the thoughts of other characters, like the Corporal, Serge (a childhood friend of Larissa’s), the psychologist…but not consistently and sometimes it seems to hide things, and we also get letters, documents, etc. The time-line can be somewhat challenging at times as Larissa can flicker between memories (how she met Andrew, her husband, their time at university, some of her musical gigs, her childhood memories including some very dark ones) and things that are happening at the time of the action of the novel, when she is being pressurised by the authorities to sign a document acknowledging that Andrew is death. Although this is how our mind works, sometimes it’s not easy to tell the difference until you get to the next change in perspective. Perhaps a different type of letter or a break would make it easier. I also found the fact that many characters have similar names (all beginning with K, I’m not sure why) made me go back and forth to make sure.

The description of Larissa’s psychological state and emotions is accurate for somebody suffering from a grief reaction (even if in her case she has no real proof that her husband is dead). She feels guilty, angry, sad, confused and doubts constantly about what to do. Her family circumstances were already complicated and she does not know if her sister is alive or not and it’s not difficult to understand that she’d be reluctant to let go of the one bit of family she had left. We might lack outside perspective on her and know little about her previous personality so it’s difficult to get a full picture of the character but this will probably build over time.

I am not an expert in science-fiction but I know world-building can be one of the main strengths of these novels. After reading the author’s biography I understand why the parts that deal with virtual reality (the Bubble, that is where the crème of society live, in a fake world of their choosing, and Nirvana, that is the low-key version that workers might access, but in small doses) are very strong and mind-boggling, even scarily so. By contrast, the descriptions of the rest of the world are very succinct and only much later, when the point of view returns to come of the characters in positions of authority, we get to know a bit more about the world order, but this is more tell than show (although that is one of the difficulties with the genre, maintaining the balance between trying to make the story come alive whilst at the same time leaving something to the readers’ imagination).

The idea behind the politics of that world reminded me of 1984 (the level of intrusion into people’s lives is greater than even insiders realise), and the conspiracy theorists will “enjoy” the implications of some of the things uncovered and suggested towards the end of the novel. They throw an even darker light on the authorities and put into question loyalties and certainties. The comments about the interests behind big funding for scientific research and how those dictate the direction human progress takes made me pause and gave me cause for concern. (Having studied Medicine this is a thing we’re always aware of).

I found the brief discussions on physics and even music theory fascinating, but might not be to everybody’s taste, especially younger readers interested mainly in the characters.

I found the overall story engaging, although the surprise at the end was hinted at and most readers are likely to have guessed it by then, but it is a good twist and it leaves room for much more to come.

This is perhaps a novel that does not fit in comfortably within the YA category, but I think it’s a series worth keeping an eye on, as there are interesting plot lines, characters with plenty of hidden agendas and room for development, and a whole world (or worlds) that we’ve only glimpsed. And virtual reality as you haven’t seen it yet. Ah, and don’t forget to read the writer’s biography. It will make you very uneasy…