Solitaire (Book Review)

”F*ck,” I said as I closed Solitaire after reading the final words. Not because I was unhappy in any way. But because I felt changed by the journey the story had taken me on. That, my friends, is a really great read and exactly what I hope for when I crack open a novel.

I was tipped off that might happen, based on the words of high praise on the jacket from

Solitaire novel cover
First edition cover for Kelley Eskridge’s novel Solitaire

authors such as Dorothy Allison, Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Vonda McIntyre. None of them were exaggerating; and I’ll probably steal some of their words [with proper attribution, of course] to help articulate the awesomeness more eloquently than I can.

Solitaire is Kelley Eskridge’s debut novel; and apparently I came late to the party in discovering it, as it was published in 2002. Fortunately it is just as timely now as it was then. In the intervening years, some of the concepts were used to create a film, OtherLife. (For reasons explained in the post OtherLife vs. Solitaire, I’m glad the rich world and complex characters in Solitaire weren’t shrunk down to fit a film adaptation. Both stories stand well on their own.)

Remember the company town? (Eg, a mining company runs the only business and everyone works for it, shops from the store it owns, lives in housing it provides, etc.) That’s Ko, a company town at the level of a whole nation on a future earth with a world government. Eskridge drops us into this world with just enough explanation of politics and sociology and economics to understand how the characters function there and how it shapes their thinking and relationships. As Ursula K. Le Guin said, “Solitaire brilliantly explores the struggles of corporate self with individual soul, the uneasy compromises of knowledge and profit under capitalism, the dubious boundary between ‘virtual reality’ and the act of imagination—all in the ageless story of a bright, risky kid trying to find out who she is and where her freedom lies.”
If letting us tool around Ko (and later other locales such as a virtual-reality prison cell) inside the head of Ren Segura is the brain candy of the story, the rich use of haptic detail keeps us grounded in our senses and emotions. Home is home for a variety of reasons that include food, language, the people we love, and our physical sense of place. Eskridge weaves sights and smells and climate and geography into the literal and emotional landscape; and it’s easy to feel Ren’s attachment to Ko as home.

Imagery and language:
The story really shimmers from the threads of gorgeous imagery woven in throughout. Eskridge’s use of language is visceral and lyrical without drifting into poetry for show—every artful turn of phrase flavors the moment rather than stealing it.  When Ren’s mother vents her anger at Ren, her voice “rolling over her like the waves she had seen breaking onto the beach as she walked to her parents’ house earlier that afternoon,” the image tells us so much—about the mother, the place, Ren’s emotional reaction and the years of relationship behind it.

Ren Segura begins the story as a pawn, a young person constantly aware that she is being groomed for a role in global politics, with high expectations to live up to. But she has a strong will to find her own agency, a deep hunger to be her own person first. And yet, she also yearns to please everyone. Despite events beyond her control, she fights to find her core self and her own sense of purpose. She’s young and insecure but gifted and strong and fundamentally good under a self-protective prickly exterior. Her flaws buy her trouble, her strengths get  her through them; and we will root for her even when she frustrates us (because we were young and self-flagellating once, too).

All of the supporting characters have as much dimension to us as Ren can see in them, which is variable. Some we really aren’t sure we can trust, because she isn’t sure; and that builds suspense in a very organic way.

Snow, Ren’s truest friend and sweetest love, is an amazing, indelible character. We see Snow through both Ren’s eyes and through her own (in brief POV bits), as well as her words and actions. Most of the time I yelled at Ren (you know, like you do at the TV when the characters are being clueless), she was shutting out Snow in an effort to protect her. Sure, I empathized, but…come on, Ren. Of all the great things about the story, their relationship was my favorite element.

Bonus Points:
Ren is trained to be a facilitator and project manager. She’s good at it; and from the descriptions of workplace interactions, I’m pretty sure Eskridge drew from real life. If not her own, maybe she was spying on friends in the corporate world or a large, liberal-minded government agency like the one I used to work in. Being in the fictional room gave me huge deja vu.

Heart of the Story
Speculative fiction allows for a lot of play with cool technology concepts and the what ifs on how life would change with them. That’s always fun. And virtual reality enters in here a bit that way. But mostly it’s a great tool for helping the reader do what spec fic is perfect for: exploring what it means to be human. In this case, imprisoning Ren in virtual solitary confinement lets us explore a vital existential question: Who are we, without our connections to society and the physical world? We all have concepts of self and identity rooted in and enmeshed with our families, friends, jobs, communities, etc. Messing with any one of those creates a nice character- or plot-arcing impetus. And novels (spec and non-spec fiction) often create conflict in those areas to show how different characters respond.
But when Ren is placed in solitary confinement for virtual years, she has no reference points to any part of her humanity to connect to–not work, or clothing, or conversation, or nature, or anything she can’t hold in her mind. And after experiencing true isolation, she relates to the peopled, interactive world differently. Without getting into spoilers, let’s just say that the journey gets painful, fascinating, uncomfortably thought-provoking, and ultimately redemptive. If you take the ride with your eyes open (and your heart and brain engaged), it will make you think about who you are both in connection to others and (so much harder to do) solo.