Electric Forest

by Tanith Lee
Reviewed date: 2018 Apr 24
Rating: 2
159 pages
cover art

Magdala Cled was born an ugly, deformed child on the Earth Conclave colony planet Indigo, raised in a state ophanage, mercilessly abused by other children, ignored by adults, and now ekes out a joyless living toiling at a factory to earn just enough astrads to pay for a small featureless cube apartment with no windows. Her single joy in life is a monthly meal at the Accomat Cafeteria, when she gets fresh fruit and vegetables instead of the usual revitalized frozen food and vitamins.

Magdala has no friends. She works hard to be invisible. The alternative is to be noticed, and to be noticed is to be mocked, degraded and abused.

A beautiful young obscenely wealthy man notices her. He sees her on the street. He accosts her at her monthly meal in the cafeteria. He follows her home, or rather, he is waiting for her when she arrives.

The man is Claudio Loro, and he targeted Magdala because she is invisible. Nobody will notice when he takes her. He bullies her into coming with him to his home, where he transfers her consciousness into an artificially constructed human body. The synthetic woman is breathtakingly beautiful and convincingly human. Claudio keeps Magdala in the dark about his intentions for her. She is his slave. ("You are my marionette. Dance for me, and keep your mouth shut.") He is cruel to her, calling her ugly and worthless. He puts her into social situations that he has manipulated, just to see and gauge her reactions. It's all deeply uncomfortable. Claudio is a bad man, but at this point we're still wondering the meaning of it all. There must be more to Claudio than mere sadism.

The book bogs down around this point. The early part about Magdala's life as an ugly, invisible person is moving and powerful. Once she is in the new body, there's too much about her feelings (which aren't convincing anymore) and way too much description of scenery and setting. In particular, Lee vastly over-estimates my interest in the colors of things.

Lightning was striking the forest, repeatedly. A thousand colors reflected on the breakers of the sea, the black wall of the night, poured over into the cave, the car. Yellow, lilac, carmine; purple, turquoise, green. The shades of antique golden coins, of blue fish scales, of dusks, of dawns, of fires and alcohols, stained glass, flowers and blood.

I hoped we might get some treatment of how being beautiful would change Magdala's character. But Lee doesn't spend much time on this aspect. Magdala realizes that being noticed when you're beautiful is not the same as being noticed when you're ugly and deformed. And she starts to become accustomed to expensive things that Claudio's wealth can afford, but being rich and being beautiful are not the same thing, so that's a bit of a false trail. In any case, events unfold too rapidly for Magdala to get a real feel for life as a beautiful woman.

After a few days Claudio reveals his goal. Magdala's synthetic body is a simulate copy of a real woman, Christophine del Jan. Claudio and Christophine worked together on the top secret Consciousness Transferral (CT) project, became lovers, had a falling out, and Claudio left. Now apparently Claudio has achieved CT on his own and is using it to get some kind of twisted revenge on Christophine. Claudio takes Magdala to Christophine's house and leaves her there, presumably hoping that Magdala will confront Christophine and, well, actually I'm unclear on that. Kill her? Creep her out? Make love to her? It's not clear what Claudio's intentions are.

Plot Twist!
Christophine takes it in stride. She reveals that she made the breakthrough that made CT possible, but that Claudio stole the plans and destroyed the computer records, setting the project back years. Magdala decides to help Christophine confront Claudio and force him to give back the data.

Plot Twist!
They confront Claudio. Christophine kills Claudio and attempts to kill Magdala before escaping with the CT plans. In his dying confession, Claudio reveals that he--not Christophine--made the CT breakthrough, and he destroyed the data because he knew Christophine was planning to sell it to the Outer Worlds. Magdala confronts Christophine at her house and kills her.

Plot Twist!
It was all a setup, an elaborate experiment. The entire planet of Indigo was a stage. Christophine had her memory suppressed and the false memory of Magdala's childhood implanted. Then her consciousness was transferred into the deformed synthetic body of Magdala. Later, when Magdala was "transferred" into what she thought was a synthetic body, she was actually being transferred back into her original body.

The "real" Christophine was a synthetic body operated by remote control. The whole experiment was designed to test whether a person could be manipulated into killing their body double. Everybody--Claudio included--was an actor playing a part.

Did I like the book? Well, I liked the first part, the description of Magdala Cled's joyless, terrifying life. The rest of it was slow-moving and too introspective, and then everything was ruined and made meaningless by the twist ending. So no, overall I'm going to give a thumbs down.

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