Sunday, July 17, 2011

Diamond Eyes, A. A. Bell

A. A. Bell's Diamond Eyes starts out with hints of what is to come:   Mira, the protagonist, hears her new staff advocate, Ben Chiron, asking

"Why bother blindfolding a blind woman?"
"Why restrain her?", and
"How much trouble could she be?"

She's used to these questions, so we know right away that she's blind, institutionalized, and a handful, but have to wait to find out why she insists on a blindfold (or more permanent measures.) The Serenity Center has a new, more humane director (Matron Sanchez) who has assigned Ben to work with Mira to attempt to bring her out of her shell. Ben promises to protect her from the other staff members who have been treating her roughly, and slowly wins her over.

There's not much action for a while as we get to meet the other characters. It's quite a while before we find out what's special about Mira's eyes, and Bell gives the story a mainstream feel until the revelation.

Mira is blind in the normal visual range, but sees ghostly visual echoes from events of the past. When she's above a building's first floor, she sees only earlier inhabitants of the area on the ground, and can't navigate because the walls and doors disappear. The blindfold keeps her from being distracted by the ghosts; she can't interact with people from the past, so they're clearly different from the flesh-and-blood people who talk to her and keep her tied up much of the time. She's obstreperous because the people who attempt to control her bahavior are only slightly more real to her than the ghosts she can see clearly.

Into this mix, Bell adds Dr. Zhou, who has invented a device that can tell whether someone is telling the truth (or at least believes that they are doing so.) Whle using Mira in a test of the device, the scientists are surprised to discover that she believes what are obviously (to them) hallucinations, they're interested enough that they follow up on her answers and figure out that that she's seeing into the past, then test her abilities by getting her to witness some known and some previously unknown events.

With this situation and characters Bell builds an interesting set of conflicts and an action packed story. I think the military intelligence angle behind Dr. Zhou was unnecessary, and the story would have been better without it. Mira's fight to free herself from the Serenity Center's institutional clutches is a heroic struggle, and the staff of the Serenity Center takes a little too much delight in restraining her physically (though Mira really is uncontrollable.)

Harper Collins sent review copies to the Prometheus Award committee, but none of the committee members thought the libertarian angles were strong enough to warrant a nomination. I agree; I enjoyed the story more for its off-beat sensibility than for the pro-freedom aspects. By the end of the story, Ben and Mira understand her strange ability, and have a strong relationship to build on. They've confounded the military, and Sanchez is on their side. Bell was a bit too even-handed to bring Mira's struggle for reasonable treatment to the forefront. I think it's even a better story for that.

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