“Proof of Concept” by Gwyneth Jones is the story of Kir. A young woman living on a 23rd century, over-populated Earth with all the encumbent environment and social problems, she has something the majority do not: an AI named Altair living in her head. A scientist cum reality tv star, Kir gets the chance of a lifetime when she agrees to live deep below the Earth and participate in a project called the Needle, doing her part to research FTL travel. Seemingly mankind’s only hope to escape the cauldron of pollution and poverty it created on the surface above, things start to get weird when Kir’s colleagues begin dying one by one.
If that paragraph seems to pack a lot of ideas, indeed Jones’ novella does. “Proof of Concept” is at times sardine-like. The story style is dense and blocky, with movement neither smooth or flowing. Jones immersing the reader without introduction to the 23rd century, it’s an experience to grope through—seemingly with intention, given the parallels to the subjectivity of information in Kir’s world. (That being said, I have read other of Jones’ short fiction, and it had a similar style.) Close reading is required.
But what Jones accomplishes from a social media perspective, tends toward obfuscation in other areas. I am not one of the legion of reviewers looking for “likable characters”, but I do point out that “Proof of Concept” is the type of story that depends on the presentation of its characters and flow of scenes to achieve the impact of its ending. Character and scene as much a milieu as technology and setting, however, there is little for the reader to anchor themselves to. The text contains a lot of em-dashes, ellipsis (ellipsi?), parantheses, brackets, and the paragraphs are generally quite brief. In other words, the novella rarely settles into itself, meaning that moments do not often come to life or build momentum—a fact proved by the sudden, quiet ending. The ending in fact fitting the heart of the story (Jones’ accomplishes her mission intelligently), it nevertheless lacks the impact it could have had were the preceding story organized with fluid purpose. What stands is a matte photo of a busy scene.
In the end, “Proof Concept” has interesting ideas regarding the perception of society and the channels which we allow ourselves to view it, but given the manner in which Jones presents her story, feels almost schizophrenic, the other ideas packed on lost in the jumble. A story that deserves to be stretched out to truly breathe, it is caught between the desire to be coy and yet explain things—a juxtaposition never fully resolved by the sylistic approach. The final result is familiar genre material wearing a tangle of clothes.