I’m privileged to be part of a writing group that has some hugely talented published writers, as well as some who are just as talented but haven’t yet been published.We’ve been going strong ever since we finished our MA at Bath Spa University and I’ve learnt a lot from everyone. Our members include Jane Shemilt, author of two bestselling novels, Daughter and The Drowning Lesson, Mimi Thebo, whose whose recently published children’s novel Dreaming the Bear has been much praised, Victoria Finlay, author of two fascinating and successful adult non-fiction books, Colour and Jewels, as well as The Brilliant History of Color in Art for young people, Peter Reason, another non-fiction author whose book Spindrift is both a vivid description of a sailing voyage and a deeply felt and deeply considered meditation on our relationship with nature, and Emma Geen, whose original and enthralling debut novel The Many Selves of Katherine North has just been published by Bloomsbury.
The Many Selves is set in a near future where the technology exists both to print living replicas of animal bodies, known as ResExtendas, with a brain stem but no higher brain function, and to allow ‘body jumpers’, known as phenomenauts, to project their consciousness into them, primarily for purposes of research. Katherine North works for ShenCorp, a company that recruits children and young teenagers as its phenomenauts, since their brains have greater plasticity than adults’. Most of them don’t continue for long in the job – for reasons that become clear at the end of the novel – but Katherine, known as Kit, has been body jumping successfully for several years.
At the beginning of the novel Kit experiences being run over and killed while body jumping in a fox ResExtenda, or Ressy. She survives in her human body but is profoundly shaken by the experience and starts to question her identity. She also believes she has encountered another presence, in the form of a fox, which does not appear on any of the records. Buckley Maurice, her neuroengineer (body jump guide/technician) who has been with her on all her jumps, is concerned about her continuing to work as a phenomenaut, but Kit loves the job and at the comparatively advanced age of seventeen can still pass the brain plasticity tests. She is committed to ShenCorp’s research programme into species that are endangered or little understood and resists when the odious Mr Hughes, supported by Buckley, tries to manoeuvre her away from research and into body tourism. This is a commercial project where those who can afford it pay to body-jump into a species of their choice – or even a human Ressy – accompanied by an experienced phenomenaut like Kit.
If Kit wants to stay as a phenomenaut, she has no choice but to accept the transfer. She struggles to continue doing what she loves in a way that satisfies her, and this throws her into conflict with ShenCorp. As she tries to deal with the dilemma, her life begins to disintegrate and she feels entirely alone. Buckley seems to have turned against her and to be responsible for the other presence, and she doesn’t know where else to look for an ally. Leading a feral existence, part human, part fox, she is determined to understand what has happened to her and reclaim her life.
What stands out for me in this remarkable and poetically written novel are the descriptions of the body jumps themselves, into species as diverse as a spider, an octopus, a tiger and a blue whale. Emma Geen makes us believe completely what it would be like to experience the world as another creature while retaining human consciousness, and we can feel the respect for other species that this would give us. The book’s questions about humanity, identity and the relationship between mind and body are far-reaching and universal, but at the same time it is a very human story of a teenager finding her own way of being in the world. The Many Selves of Katherine North is deeply thought-provoking and a very good read.