Review: 'Mindtouch', by M. C. A. Hogarth
It is unfair to compare Hogarth’s novel set at a university in her Paradox universe with Pixar’s recently-released Monsters University, but the superficial parallels are obvious. Instead of the no-two-are-the-same monsters, there are the seeming-dozens of different species of the Pelted, and some humans, wandering about prestigious Seersana University. Instead of a big green eyeball and a blue-lavender furry monster as main characters, there are a pale, tall humanoid Eldritch and a short, furry centauroid winged Glaseah.
The big difference is that in Monsters University, the cast all look different but are all from the same culture. In Mindtouch, the different species are from different societies. The students may know intellectually that they are in for some “different” experiences at S.U., but it is still a shock when they happen.
Orientation began, as he had half expected, with a speech by the associate dean of the College of Medicine, of which the xenopsychology school was a part. He was one of the Seersa, the foxine Pelted who’d given the world its name, a lean and grizzled elder with salt-and-pepper fur and the intensity of a medic. Jahir listened to his monologue while marveling that he was actually here … sitting in a chair in an auditorium filled with aliens. The woman in front of him had silk-furred ears that were trembling from the effort of catching every word. The ends of the rows had spaces for centauroids to recline, or the more avian aliens to perch. He was, very definitely, no longer home, and if the stress of his danger at being so crowded was giving him a headache, well … it was worth it, for the newness of it. (pgs. 28-29)
That protagonist is Jahir Seni Galare, actually Lord Jahir Seni Galare, a humanoid-looking but totally alien Eldritch. The Eldritch are notorious for never leaving their home planet, because they are involuntary telepaths to whom the impact of other minds is painful:
Jahir leaned against the counter while he waited, pressing his fingers to the bridge of his nose in a vain attempt to banish the headache lurking there. He had not been on Seersana even six hours, and he’d already been smothered several times by the overactive minds of aliens. Having to stand so close to them in lines, shuttles and ground transports inevitably resulted in accidents, some of them so intense he’d had to find someplace to sit until the impressions faded. (p. 3)
The student who becomes his roommate is Vasiht’h, a Glaseah. They physically seem an “odd couple”, but emotionally and in temperament they are not odd at all:
The creature tangled in the ropes had four legs and two arms in the configuration of a centaur. He also had a tail and two smooth wings attached lengthwise to his lower back. His black and white pelt suggested a permanent formal suit, with white stripes down his black back, a white chest and white toes. His face was some amalgam of animal and human, with a short muzzle and floppy black bangs over brown eyes. Instead of ears, he had feathers arranged in sprays, like the back of a woman’s hat. Jahir had never seen anything like him. (p. 7)
Here is one more description, of Lucrezia, their med-student next-door neighbor, to give a flavor of how varied S.U. is:
Lucrezia, sitting across from him, looked like a leopard made bipedal, with all the sensual beauty of the creature, ragged black spots on lemon-yellow fur. She had large dark eyes, heavily lashed, and a tilt to her mouth that made her look perpetually amused. Harat-Shar, he thought, if he remembered right. The Alliance’s hedonists? He wouldn’t have imagined one in a medical profession. (p. 36)
Jahir and Vasiht’h are the only members of their species at S.U. Mindtouch tells why this is. The Eldritch and the Glaseah are both espers, but Jahir is an involuntary contact esper. Whenever he touches someone, including brushing against a stranger in a crowd, he is overwhelmed by that person’s mind and emotions. The Eldritch are also extremely long-lived. Jahir can expect to live over a thousand years, which makes him reluctant to become emotionally attached to someone whom he can expect to grow old and die while he seems eternally young.
Vasiht’h is a “perpetual student” who does not seem to want to leave the university, constantly changing his major when he is about to graduate.
Mindtouch is the story of how Jahir and Vasiht’h come to complement each other, gradually bringing each other to graduation. There is little action or conflict; just a story of two college roommates deciding what they want their lives to become and taking the courses that will lead to that.
But this is a mild and intellectual conflict compared with Hogarth’s usual stories. She notes that Mindtouch is a more “pastoral” tale than her usual dramas set in her Paradox universe. The average college life is not full of drama and conflict, and Mindtouch seems very realistic despite the futuristic setting. This novel also tells more about the history and nature of the different Pelted species, and of the United Alliance, than any of her others, in the course of bringing Jahir and Vasiht’h slowly together.
Mindtouch seems to reach a definite ending with Jahir’s and Vasiht’h’s graduation, but this is only Book 1 of Hogarth’s “Dreamhealers Duology”. In Book 2, we can expect to see what happens to them after they leave the university, and much more of the Alliance and the Pelted. Hogarth’s writing is, as usual, finely crafted, enmeshing the reader into her exotic yet so familiar setting even while nothing much is happening. If you like her Paradox universe stories at all, this is an essential one.