Mind Fuck, Manna Francis; Chapter Two
I feel bitchy doing this here, but can I say this much? GOD IT IS REFRESHING TO READ THIS AFTER 50 SHADES. There. I’m done. Shaking it out.
We start to learn a bit more about both the world Toreth exists in and his role within it. While no specific year has been given at all through the series, we can be made aware that it’s some time in the distant future. After all, Toreth had been stationed to work on Mars. And unless there’s something a few governments had skillfully hidden from most of the population, we’re not there yet.
Before his secondment to the Mars colony, Toreth hadn’t truly appreciated how good his life had been. To begin with, despite the fact that someone had felt the need to create a senior para-investigator post there, Mars base had no crime to speak of, certainly not the political crimes that interested I&I. Six months of investigating petty anti-Administration comments, on a strictly dry base, amid perpetual safety drills and in the company of the dullest people he had ever met, had taught him to appreciate Earth.
Um, E. L. James, take notice, please: this is how we show, not tell. That little paragraph has said more than PAGES of 50 Shades did. And I don’t yet hate any of the characters, something I’m not meant to do– and something I was initially surprised about given the blurb’s rather ominous description of Toreth.
There’s a brief history of the organisation Toreth works for: I&I (Investigation and Interrogation) within the London branch of the European Administration. It appears there has been some shifting about of the organisation due to events which necessitated a great reorganisation (though this isn’t touched upon greatly). It’s a big, white, largely underground govi building with a pleasant little courtyard out the front and a statue of blindfold justice.
What I’m loving already is how believable ALL of this is. Ever worked for a government organisation? I suspect Manna Francis either has, or she’s been closely involved with someone who has. And it was descriptions like this which made me fall in love with the series: the confidence in the writing and the understanding of the little details of the world… which doesn’t actually exist. But could. Even the architecture– especially the detention facility– sounds like accurate description of what these sorts of places look like.
Francis avoids a whole heap of really fucking annoying sci-fi tropes, too. She makes everything human and… not quite mundane, but about as exciting as regular life is for the audience. Too often sci-fi writers like presenting things as oh-so-*SPECIAL* and exotic, and it creates distance for the reader who hasn’t experienced it, AND it speaks volumes to me about the author’s opinion of him or herself or his or her fantasies. And, great, you know, you want to fly a really cool spaceship and save the world, but unless you write it well or otherwise make it interesting, it’s no better than fanfiction someone’s written with a self-insert who is Harry Potter’s supah-sexeh girlfriend (who Draco Malfoy is secretly in love with and who has more magic powers than Dumbledore and Grindelwald combined).
And, fine, write that if it floats your boat. Fantasies are fun. But just don’t expect me to pay good money for that stuff and be as excited about it as you are.
We get a slight glimpse into the world of justice under the Administration. I&I houses a detention facility, where suspects are interrogated, but it’s not really a prison: Justice deals with that aspect of their processing. I&I is where the investigation happens, where the interrogations happen, and where all the paperwork happens. And oh, you’ll get to hear about that later on, too.
Handling the paperwork Toreth’s activities produce is his administrative assistant, Sara. I’ll admit, I was prepared to kind of ignore Sara the first time I read the book because of past experiences. I tend to be a little bit critical of how female characters are presented anyway, but when they’re written by women who write fanfic (as Manna Francis has done) and there is a romance aspect of the fiction, they tend to be:
- Competitive, evil bitches who want to destroy all that is good and holy in the world including the Two Wuvv that is the focal point of the story. This isn’t limited to heterosexual romance, either: there are leagues of slashfic writers (funnily enough, most of whom, apparently, are heterosexual women themselves) who hate on the het girl but feel the need to include her to cause conflict or whathaveyou.
- Horrible self-inserts. Or wannabe self-inserts. Or self-inserts who win the internets, save the world and get showered with cookies and kittens and eternal adoration from everyone because the writer just really, really, wants to be loved. Bleh.
- Irritating, gushy sidekicks.
- Expendable red-shirts, who are there to serve a purpose and who got made female “just coz.”
And when they’re written by guys, they’re generally just some sidekick, useful, or something for the hero to stick his dick in. This is one reason why “romance” fails to appeal to me. And why those dudes-doing-actiony-spy-stuff books don’t usually win me over, too.
Anyway, Sara. I fucking adore Sara. And I love the exchanges between her and Toreth.
Sara spread her arms. “What do you think?”
Trick question, because she was wearing the standard admin uniform of dark grey, with the I&I logo on the shoulder. He scanned her, letting his professional eye for detail pull out an answer. New hairstyle was a good first guess, but her black, glossy hair– from the same part-Southeast Asian genes that supplied her dark eyes and the golden cast to her skin– was cut in a shoulder-length bob. No change from the last few weeks. That left one other thing to try, so he checked her hands. The new ring stood out at once amongst the collection that adorned her slim hands. The three diamonds were large enough to classify it as an offensive weapon. Third finger of her left hand, too.
“You’re engaged again?”
Her face darkened. “I wish you wouldn’t say again like that.”
“Why not? We both know that finger’s just a jumping-off point for one of the others. Have I met this new contributor to the pension plan?”
“No, I don’t think s. He’s…” Rings sparkling, she sketched a vague suggestion of height. “It was a bit of a surprise, really. I’ve not known him that long. And the stones are synthetic. But it’s a nice one, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, lovely.” Toreth gave him a month, at the most. “Anything for me?”
“Your lucky morning, too– not a thing.”
I love the dynamic between them, I love the dialogue, and I love the show-not-tell aspect of Francis’ writing. And I love the fact that while she gives– particularly in the first book– world-building necessary details, she doesn’t linger on anything. Toreth goes about his morning, running through paperwork resulting from his investigations, and then we get to meet another one of the I&I workers: Chevril.
Chevril always makes me smile. Everyone’s worked with a Chevril or two before (or perhaps they are the workplace Chevril): they don’t have a great deal going for them, they aren’t particularly pleased with their lot in life, and they seems ritualistically stuck doing the same thing day in and out. But they’re not bad people, at the end of the day. Chevril’s sort of ineffective and not really seen as a mover and a shaker around the office: he’s your regular bloke who does a day’s work and goes home at the end of it and it’s what he’ll do til retirement. He’s been in the system long enough to be a bit cynical about it and a bit lazy, though at the moment, he’s recently promoted to a senior role and he’s pleased enough to visit Toreth and parade a little bit.
He looks out Toreth’s window into the enclosed courtyard below, noticing the palm trees.
“They put them in on Friday. Didn’t you notice all the plants up here, too?”
“Huh. Sprucing up the place for Secretary Turnbull’s visit. I bet they take ’em away the minute she’s gone.”
“Very probably. If there’s a leaf left in the building by then.”
“Are they walking already?” Chevril snorted. “Bunch of bloody thieves there are in this place.”
Another great bit of dialogue and one which had me grinning. It’s little human details like this which breathe life into a story, and, well, it’s true. Government workplaces are meant to offer stability and room for promotion, but they don’t really give away stuff to their employees like private enterprises do. (Seriously, I’ve heard of my friends getting amazing Christmas parties, awesome catering at corporate events, Christmas hampers with wines and hams and stuff in them, and all sorts of really amazing stuff.) I believe it’s because it would be unfair to use taxpayer money to give benefits and bonuses to staff. The resulting staff will steal anything that isn’t nailed down. The idea of people pinching pot plants– which were only brought in anyway to make things look pretty for a political figure– absolutely cracked me up because it’s the sort of thing that actually happens.
If they filmed this, they’d have to have this mentioned, and then show various offices and desks with tropical pot plants on them in varying stages of life and death. (Things aren’t considered gifts or benefits if they remain on the premises!)
Over Chevril’s visit we learn a little more about the system: senior para-investigators get a team who work under them (and later we learn there is a “casual pool” of staff awaiting assignment when more team members are needed and funding is available for them). And while the system can be brutal, there are still various avenues which need to be gone through involving investigation and interrogation.
Chevril is sorting out (or not sorting out, as Toreth mentions) paperwork for an “m-f.” That’s the other thing you get used to: workplace lingo.
(And then, if you’re like me, you’ll go and watch Blake’s 7 and be stunned and thinking things like, “Did this person have appropriate clearance or a waiver sufficiently high enough to do that?” or “That’s what they mean by M-F. Okay.”)
Toreth and Chevril run through some of this.
Chevril pulled a hand screen from his back pocket, expanded the screen, and laid it flat on Toreth’s desk. He paged disconsolately through the half-completed form. “I mean, just look at this. ‘Estimated Value of Information Expected.’ I don’t bloody know, do I? If I knew what information she had, I wouldn’t need to interrogate her, would I?”
Toreth sighed. “Look, put down ‘high strategic value.’ Works for me.”
“I’ve tried that. Mindfuck bounced the last one as insufficiently detailed.”
“Well, maybe you should call them Psychoprogramming. It puts them in a better mood[…]”
Again, showing, not telling, and giving the reader an idea of just *how* brutal the system is, and also, that there are restrictions on it from the other end. We’re not just talking basic interrogation here, we’re talking higher-end stuff even the staff refer to as “mindfuck.” (Another reference, of course, and as someone said, it’s a theme carried right through the book.) But as seniors higher than Toreth– and Toreth himself– admit, it’s not going to put him– or any of the others working in interrogation– out of work. When it fucks up, it’s disastrous. And it isn’t infallible. And it’s expensive. And it needs to be done by trained professionals. And it requires a lot of paperwork for authorisation.
Its established that both Toreth and Chevril are there for life– Chevril complains but either lacks the motivation or the interest in doing anything else– or the benefits of working for the Administration outweigh being elsewhere– and while it’s not touched upon too much at this point, it’s a sure bet that Toreth is content in his job. Despite the paperwork, the sometimes drudgery and the persistent rumours that he’s screwing his (heterosexual, not that anyone gossiping cares about a detail like that) manager to get all the good cases.
I’ll admit, too: the first time I read the series, I overlooked a lot of this sort of stuff. I’d mistakenly bought the book believing I’d get more in the way of dystopian bleakness and action and homoeroticism. I wasn’t expecting something as polished and as normal. I’ve also tended to read the series at weird hours and on very little sleep. And I wasn’t really expecting much more than a C-grade futuristic romp with lots of angst and violent gay sex. I really, really didn’t expect this.
I’m so glad I was wrong.