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Laura J. Mixon
Tor Books, 444 pages

Art: ChoppingBlock
Laura J. Mixon
Trained as a chemical engineer, Laura Mixon found her way into environmental engineering and consulting after a two year stint in the Peace Corps. A devoted writer of science fiction since she was a child, in 1995 she quit to pursue her writing full-time. She has written four books -- Astropilots, Glass Houses, Greenwar (which she cowrote with Stephen Gould), and most recently, Proxies. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with her husband (Stephen Gould) and their two children.

Laura J. Mixon Website
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A review by Kim Fawcett

Bookstore shelves are crammed with novels by new writers, and with so much competition, it takes a truly phenomenal book to stand out. So which of the horde is worth your time and money? Here's a tip -- the next time you go to the bookstore, look up Laura Mixon's new book, Proxies. The only reason it doesn't actually leap off the shelf is because it's jammed in too tightly.

Set in the not-so-far future, Proxies depicts an Earth that's going seriously downhill. But, while the environment is degrading almost as swiftly as the standard of living, technology promises a better future. Space exploration is finally feasible, with new discoveries permitting interstellar travel, instantaneous communication, and proxies.

Proxies are remotely-driven machines that range from simple waldos to thought-driven human replicas so real the average person can't pick them out of a crowd. It is around these human-like machines and their pilots that Proxies revolves.

Proxies starts when a proxy body is stolen from a major research and development company. Public discovery of the renegade proxy would be a fatal blow to the company, so the powers-that-be dispatch a proxy pilot, Daniel, to find and stop the renegade before it can cause more harm.

It turns out that it isn't just the company's proxy program that's at stake. There is a secret proxy program, the Kaleidas project, that has been underway for many years. The project revolves around a group of crippled and chronically ill children who can no longer survive outside their crèches. They live through their proxies instead, and are the best proxy pilots ever produced, but the political powers that support the project are weakening, and won't be able to protect the project -- or the children -- if the renegade proxy comes to light.

The project's founder has a plan to save them, but it requires the expertise of scientist Carli McLeod, inventor of the instantaneous communications device. The plan gets underway, but Kaleidas can't approach Carli immediately. When it becomes apparent that Carli is in danger herself, only Daniel is in a position to help her.

In Proxies, Mixon has achieved an excellent mix of action and mystery. Daniel races to find the renegade and save Carli's life while the Kaleidas project launches its last-ditch effort to save the children, but the motives and true actors remain obscure. The reader is left with the puzzle behind all the action -- what is really going on? Such balancing acts are rarely accomplished by even established authors, so it's wonderful to see in someone so new.

Mixon handles the mystery element particularly well. Right from the first chapter, you're left facing a barrage of questions. Who is piloting the renegade proxy? What are his or her motives? Who is Dane Elisa Kae? Why doesn't she know the answer to that herself? With the novel's viewpoint switching regularly between a handful of main characters, you get answers just one bit at a time. You never know more than the characters themselves, which makes the plot's unfolding a very interactive experience.

Unfortunately, the huge cast has a negative effect as well. There are so many secondary characters in Proxies that after a few chapters it's rather difficult to tell who's who, particularly with all the crèche children "twinning" and posing as others in proxy. The constantly switching viewpoint often slows the plot, at least initially. Every main character has a history, and the story doesn't really take off until you pick up all that background information.

However, Proxies' strong points more than make up for these small flaws. Mixon has a way with setting, establishing scenes not only through straight description but through her characters as well. You learn about the world of Proxies as much by observing how Carli and Daniel and the others react to it as you do through the explicit descriptions. Every new attitude, mannerism, and speech pattern shows a future world that is an organic social structure, shaping its inhabitants as much as they shape it. This subtle approach to setting really makes Proxies shine.

Proxies is a good "what if" science fiction story in the classic sense, but the best science fiction does more than just gush about new machines and technologies. It examines how these would impact our behaviour, and how they would change society. In Proxies, children who would otherwise have died early in life get a second chance through the proxy technology. But, as Mixon shows, this same technology ultimately makes the children both more and less than human. The extent of the differences sneak up on you as you read, and by the end of the book, the proxy-kids' strange "otherness" adds some serious creep factor.

The proxy-pilot experiment is undoubtedly meant to raise ethical questions in readers; Mixon definitely has a point to make. I must say I was a bit disappointed when she set aside her wonderfully subtle style in order to drive her point home through epiphanies experienced by most of the characters. Again this is a small flaw, but one that particularly irked me.

That said, Proxies is phenomenal for a writer so new to the scene. If Laura Mixon keeps on writing like this, I predict her next book will earn her a place in the group of "hot new writers to watch." And that's a future we can all look forward to.

Copyright © 1998 by Kim Fawcett

Kim Fawcett works, reads, writes, and occasionally sleeps in Ottawa, Canada. A day job working as a contract technical writer hinders her creative efforts, but has no effect at all on her book-a-week reading habit. She dreams of (a) winning the lottery, (b) publishing a novel, © traveling the world, and (d) doing all of the above all at once.

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