The Control Problem is a novel by Norah Woodsey. It’s one of the novels I found while going off the beaten traditional-publishing path.
Vera is your typical nondescript twenty-something. She’s single, has a job correcting errors in digitized medical files that happened during scanning, and has two close friends.
Or rather, you’d think she was typical., It soon turns out there’s more going on. Vera had a bad accident a few years before the story, causing severe memory loss. It required restorative plastic surgery. These days, she has trouble adjusting to changing routines and social situations. Her attempts to become a single mom are not going well, and there appears to be something hinky about the IVF treatment she’s undergoing.
As the story progresses, the rabbit hole turns out to go deeper and deeper, but let’s not spoil it. Suffice it to say, Vera has problems and nothing around her is what it seems.
The Control Problem is written as a diary, Vera’s diary. The story starts with her first entry and the story ends with… Well, again, I’ll avoid spoilers.
Of course, the diary format is the underpinning of all first person stories. But, in many cases that can be the problem as well. It isn’t always clear who the diary is for, or when it was supposedly written. The diary format has evolved from actual diaries to being just a viewpoint from inside somebody’s head. That sort of the side steps the ‘who is it written for’ issue, but if the viewpoint is no longer a description for somebody else but just somebody’s own thoughts, who are they explaining things to? Themselves? That often doesn’t track. This doesn’t bother me personally, but it can annoy some — my wife, for example. And that was a very long-winded way of saying that Control Problem does it differently.
The Control Problem avoids all of the above problems: it’s very clearly a diary. The reason I draw so much attention to it, is that it’s really difficult to write something that way. The diary format is very constraining. As the author, it means you have to figure out how to make each scene a diary entry. You can’t show scenes where the main character wasn’t present. You have to find moments in between the scenes for the main character to write. And, you have to make everything exciting while keeping the diary entry style. That is hard. But Norah manages to pull it off. So, kudos for that.
Now comes a tricky section for me. How to make a point about the build-up of the story without spoiling it.
Okay, the story builds up slowly, peeling back the curtain inch by inch to reveal what’s really going on. The Control Problem drip feeds you the answers to the mystery surrounding Vera. This creates a lot of tension: you want to know what’s going on. Simultaneously, the story explores the horror of the situation. As the story builds, the sense of dread grows, until you, as the reader, want to see what happens next but also feel this suffocating net of horrors being pulled around Vera.
The only downside to this is that the story starts out slow. I had to struggle through the first few chapters before the story really grabbed me. This is inevitable because of the story structure and diary format, but I suppose it might send some of the more impatient readers running.
I’m in a writing group with a group of people who are not really science fiction or fantasy enthusiasts. You’d think that was a bad thing, but all of us are professional enough to look past the trappings of a story to the mechanics. But, when I read the stories of my friends, I often find that the differences between genres are more than just trappings. Literary fiction has a tendency to deconstruct every day life and then highlight certain aspects of it, often leaving the reader with symbols and abstractions to ponder, like a puzzle with blurry pieces that you need to put together.
Why am I telling you this? Well, because I don’t like that literary fiction approach. Science fiction goes a slightly different route, and uses made-up technological advances to change every day life. Literary fiction deconstructs every day life. Science fiction changes variables of every day life to construct something new. The difference can be subtle, and I’m grossly simplifying the variety in both literary fiction and science fiction, but just bear with me.
The Control Problem has some of the hallmarks of literary fiction. It focuses on a normal person with a life not very different from our own. The story explores her relation with her friends. But, unlike literary fiction, at its core is still a technological advance that has… well, no spoilers. The point is, the story — especially at the start — bears the hallmarks of literary fiction, but turns out to be firmly in the science fiction camp.
No aliens, no space ships, and no battles with ray guns, but science fiction nonetheless. And it’s a great story, if you don’t go in with the expectations of — I don’t know — something like Star Wars.
So, I loved the Control Problem, even if it was off to a bit of a rough start for me.
If you love science fiction that isn’t too far out there, and veers slightly closer to literary fiction, then this is the book for you.