Moods are contagious. Sometimes the spread is locally contained: yawns, tears, or infectious laughter shared involuntarily within a group. But we know too that moods can be transmitted across space and time. History teaches us how alarming such outbreaks can be.

In our current historical moment, communication networks exponentially multiply the paths of viral transmission. One might even imagine an ever-thickening digital smog shrouding our pale blue planet, rendering us little more than warmed-up hosts for increasingly virulent and drug-resistant strains of cultural disease: despair, cynicism, nihilism, fatalism, boredom, anxiety; or, indeed, the fundamentalisms, fanaticisms and paranoia which are the other side of that very same coin. Information and ideas are ubiquitous. And they are mood-carriers. The relentless global news stream may corrode our spirit and weaken our moral resolve, but we cannot turn it off. We cannot look away. Escape, temporary detox even, is harder and harder to attain. Moods are contagious: they spread not only through physical contact but are also, increasingly, airborne. Do we leave the study of the Zeitgeist to historians and philosophers, or do we enlist the help of the epidemiologists, too?

VO Blum’s DownMind provokes in me such troubling thoughts as these; other readers will no doubt be provoked and troubled in other ways. But in the best tradition of science fiction at its richest, DownMind combines dark with light in ways that are simultaneously disconcerting and entertaining: playful wit and a strong sense of historical gravity are the twin faces of this Möbius strip.

DownMind undertakes the task of ‘cognitive estrangement’ – which literary critic Darko Suvin attributes to the best in speculative fiction – with a rather beautiful lightness of touch. Whilst fantasy fiction emphasises world-building, science fiction tends to emphasise ‘world-modding’. And VO Blum mods his world with restraint: DownMind modifies and modulates our historical and geographical horizons, whilst the world it depicts remains very much our own.

As such, it easily speaks to real politics and contemporary predicaments. This short novel draws out an impressive range of themes: international relations and US hegemony; ecological politics and humanity’s looming existential crisis; power plays in the writing and rewriting of history. Oh, and the small matter of metaphysics: DownMind gnaws away at our (Western) affection for and stubborn loyalty to the res cogitans, the ideal of the sovereign, rational, skull-encased, autonomous mind.

All these themes find their mutual connection. Again, the novel manages to touch on them with both lightness and an ominous sense of unease. And it wraps them all up in a lively yarn involving mystery and investigation, love and loyalty, family and work, religion and politics.

But the restrained world-modding of DownMind doesn’t just work to support its allegorical function. It also yields a particular kind of uncanny. Not just strange but, following Freud, familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. In DownMind we are sufficiently ‘at home’ that the intrusion of unfamiliar elements has a concentrated effect. In robotics, the ever-so-slightly-strange that lurks between the real and the unreal is called the ‘uncanny valley’ and is thought to be a recipe for problems – a robot, the theory goes, should either be very human-like or very clearly inhuman, not somewhere in between where it is liable to freak the hell out of us. That in-between space is precisely where the best science fiction often sits.

DownMind is replete with cultural and geographical texture and this, as much as anything, helps to embed us in its modded world. Language, custom, and place bring both the South Pacific and Aotearoa New Zealand into the foreground of a global sci fi tale. In doing so, it brings peripheries into a genre that all too often privileges centres. Through this we don’t just get ‘local flavours’ but also themes of cross-cultural encounter, of migration, of identity, displacement and belonging. Scientist-detective protagonist, Foster Castle, isn’t just a roaming Kiwi, exploring, encountering and negotiating different cultural identities (American, Jewish, Pasifika) but is also an enjoyable and slightly offbeat riff on the familiar theme of plucky little New Zealand, punching above its weight in the global arena.

DownMind doesn’t just modulate our historical and geographic horizons, though. As sci fi it also modulates the horizons of current scientific knowledge. It speculates on scientific discoveries that may take us far beyond the metaphorical truism that ‘moods are contagious’ and which would gravely imperil our comforting illusions about the mind and its relationship to other minds, to history, and to the cosmos. The prospect of shedding those illusions may be anxiety-provoking but also carries with it some seeds of hope for these dark times.

Science fiction has a unique place in our culture in its capacity to jolt us out of our collective slumber and to have us think and question differently. At its best it offers us neither refuge nor redemption but, instead, opens up pathways for the imagination, linking us in new ways to the present, past and future so that we may think more creatively about who and what we are . . . and want to be. In DownMind these pathways are exhilarating. I suggest you switch off your BelFon, put away your InPod, and give your mind over to the journey.

Dr Luke Goode

Dr Goode is the director of postgraduate film, television, and media studies at the University of Auckland. In the autumn semester of 2013, his “Science Fiction Media” paper attracted over 150 students.