The cover copy for Kelley Eskridge’s Solitaire (2002) promises a vivid and interesting near-future world, filled with some of my favorite genre ingredients: corporate intrigue, virtual reality experimentation, a curiously transformed political landscape, a world rather like our own but also distinctly other. It certainly delivers these surface assets enjoyably, but also goes a lot deeper, providing thought-provoking themes, memorable characters, and powerful emotional impact.
The novel tells the story of Ren “Jackal” Segura, the “Hope” of the powerful Ko corporation, born and bred for greatness on the world stage as an important member of the newly forming Earth government. Intelligent, insightful, and trained from birth to be an effective symbol of change, she’s enjoyed a coddled existence on Ko’s artificial island in the South China Sea. For all her advantages, though, she’s uncomfortably aware of her privileged status, which produces its own stresses among her “web” of corporate friends. Shocking events conspire to disrupt her upward trajectory, however, and Jackal soon finds herself unfairly branded a criminal and stripped of everything she knows – her reputation, her work, her friends, her home, her lover. In lieu of serving a full sentence, she enters into an experimental VR solitary confinement program.
The experience of this program, and the subsequent effects on Jackal and the other test subjects, comprise the rest of the novel, and it’s a fascinating, beautifully written story. Throughout, Jackal struggles with her identity – ultimately discovering a true “internal self” so starkly in contrast with her mitigated, socialized corporate upbringing that she despairs of ever reconciling the public and private versions of herself. Interesting thematic dichotomies abound – internal versus external, reality versus perception, the individual versus the group, the way the world should work versus the way it actually does. Eskridge handles her ideas adroitly, integrating them into a compelling plot and setting them against a haunting futuristic backdrop. And along the way, the novel performs that time-honored SFnal trick of using a genre-modified world as an illuminating mirror on our own. Masterful.