Out of Mind by Matthew S. Cox

Front cover of Out of Mind by Matthew S. CoxCox blends wilderness survival, techo-thriller, and teenage anxiety with a fresh and interesting alien world in a way that each amplifies the others rather than conflicting.

This is the second book in Cox’s Progenitor series. Possible spoilers ahead.

Sima Nuvari grew up on the streets, chased by gangs and the law alike, until the day the authorities captured her and forced aboard a colony ship; a ship that suffered a malfunction, stranding her in—and several younger children—in the wilds of an alien planet. Eight months after being rescued by the main colony, her life is going well: she has parents who care for her, three siblings, and a future. In fact, things are so different from the rest of her life, she can’t shake the feeling it’s all an experiment. Unfortunately, not every colonist seems to be as happy as she is and—if this is real—she might have attracted the attention of the ones who really aren’t.

Rather than—as many sequels to outsider finds a home narratives do—have other people’s prejudice about the protagonist’s past have them lose their place and have to prove their innocence again, Cox focuses on the internalised belief that life isn’t pleasant or easy that can plague those with traumatic upbringings. Skilfully balancing internal dialogue on how things are a little too easy compared to Earth with more moments of more normal reaction, he shows the reader why Sima might genuinely worry everything is a simulation.

Then blends just enough things that are possibly too good with a lack of any definite evidence it isn’t a simulation to leave the reader wonder if Sima might be right.

However, this novel is not only an exploration of trauma. Cox finds plenty of plausible reason for Sima to travel back into the wilderness surrounding the colony, providing more of the fast-paced action of the first volume.

Similarly, the transition from achieving-basic-survival-structures to established colony has allowed room for more individualism, potentially creating more selfish behaviour or even criminality. Thus, there are also echoes of Sima’s paranoia about gangs and police from her time on Earth.

While this novel takes advantage of some sense things might not be real, Cox’s world is plausible and nuanced. Both the colony’s studies and Sima’s further experiences outside the city provide a mix of things that are puzzling and things that at least partially explain why some of the strangeness from the previous book and earlier chapters of this book is that way. This creates a sense that there is a coherent but alien ecosystem and history rather than a series of dangerous but unconnected flora and fauna.

Although this is a sequel, Cox provides more than enough information on prior events to allow new readers—or those reading the two volumes some time apart—to understand the context and motivation for choices and events. Conversely, this information is seamlessly integrated through thoughts and comments triggered by present action rather than as long exposition, so will not seem tedious or distracting to readers extremely familiar with the previous volume.

Sima remains a sympathetic and engaging protagonist. Her experience surviving both a lawless area of Earth and the wilds outside the colony provide her with useful skills and knowledge, as does her plausible focus on catching up on her official schooling, making her competence in the face of threats believable; but this competence is balanced by her inexperience in how normal society works and an entirely reasonable self-doubt, preventing her seeming arrogant or flawless.

The supporting cast are similarly nuanced, providing a strong sense the society is formed from chosen settlers and exiled outsiders without descending into a simplistic dualism of civilisation vs barbarism. The development of the children that Sima saved in the previous book is especially engaging, providing differing perspectives on the ways the traumas might affect someone without becoming their focus.

Overall, I recommend this to readers seeking fast-paced science-fiction adventure that does not skimp on character depth.

I received a free copy from the author with a request for a fair review.

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