Final Girls

Jul. 2nd, 2017 10:45 am
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Another modest sized piece of dark fiction from Seanan McGuire, this time writing as her alter-ego Mira Grant. Final Girls follows science journalist Esther Hoffman as she takes a close look at Dr Jennifer Webb's clinic which claims to be able to cure all types of trauma. Hoffman has a reputation as a sceptic and debunker of pseudo-science, but this is precisely why Dr Webb is so interested in converting her: if she can publicly convert someone as critical as Esther, she can convince the rest of the world.

The opening section of the story makes light work of the scene setting. After being treated to a classic horror scenario, a pair of siblings fleeing from a halloween monster, we drop back into reality and make our first acquaintance with both Hoffman and Webb. Dr Webb is polished and convincing, although Hoffman is wise enough to recognise that she's clearly been coached. Meeting the sisters who underwent the horror story simulation and recognising that their relationship has changed fundamentally, Hoffman agrees to try out the therapy system for herself.

Suddenly Esther finds herself 13 years old again and attending a new school after her father moved them from California to Massachusetts following her mother's death. Esther is worried that she doesn't know anyone, but she immediately meets one of her neighbours, a girl called Jennifer, and two strike up an immediate and friendship. Time jumps along and the pair are 16 and inseparable friends, making their own way through life, standing together against the bullies of the school's in-crowd. So far, so in keeping with the scenario that Dr Jennifer Webb has devised to help generate a bond between herself and Esther Hoffman.

But this being Mira Grant, the story twists and events suddenly rush out of control, careering off into something much darker than the original scenario. Given that the VR system is intended to tap into the users' subconscious, drawing on their dream states in a way that can be guided by the technicians and therapists monitoring the session, and given that Webb's core idea is that patients benefit most from horror story survival narratives, it's pretty obvious that things aren't exactly going to go well for the duo currently caught up in a shared nightmare.

Despite its relative brevity, Final Girls is an extremely successful, focused piece of horror fiction which features a couple of nice turns which put events on a new path. The lead characters are extremely well done and although Jennifer Webb has more than a touch of mad scientist about her, it's implied that it is more a consequence of her extreme drive than any active desire to cause harm, and maybe the shared therapy session is exactly what she needs. Esther, though damaged by what happened to her father, is clear-sighted enough to understand how it affects her and to use it to drive her highly successful career, despite seeing herself as the only layperson on her publication.

The minor characters are very much sketches but this is something that Grant is clearly aware of, given that Esther notices — but is encouraged by the drugs to disregard — much the same thing during her VR session, with none of her other classmates seeming to burn as brightly as Jennifer and herself. Even the motivations of the ultimate antagonist remain hazy, but this actually feels like a strength: the story isn't about them and allowing them to remain hidden allows the reader to ascribe their own motivations, making them as villainous or venal as they choose to believe.

Also intriguing is the way the story juxtaposes the notion of recovered memory with Dr Webb's more scientific method of reprogramming. In Esther's early encounter with the Nappe sisters, she identifies what she thinks are deep-seated flashes of doubt in the sister's expressions; because, however much they've chosen to change themselves, there's no denying they are no longer, post-therapy, the people they were before, regardless of whether the change has been for better or worse. And the fact that the sisters have gone through such a radical chance underscores Esther's concern that the system could be used for full-on brainwashing; something underscored by Dr Webb's extremely ethically dubious decision to use her treatment system to make Esther like her — a decision that is somewhat tempered by the doctor's own presence in the VR system, her acknowledgement that the influence is only going to be slight, and the fact that it will be mutual, with both participants being changed by it.

In summary, then, Final Girls is a dark delight: a clever central conceit, a pair of excellent lead characters, and a strong setting underpinned by some intriguing ideas. Excellent stuff.

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