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Your Mind Is a Terrible Thing by Hailey Piper3 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsIf I’d trust one writer to tell a space-horror story well (a niche genre that’s a lot harder to pull off than you might think), it would be Hailey Piper, an author who has demonstrated there’s no subject matter too gonzo for her to tackle at least once. Sure enough, Your Mind Is a Terrible Thing offers a terrific spin on the classic monsters-on-my-spaceship premise, though a lot of readers might not initially recognize everything it’s doing. It’s action-packed — the whole thing is about 90% one massive chase scene — but it’s less interested in being traditionally scary than it is in exploring themes and ideas. And for a novella about brains with tentacles attacking a spaceship, it’s working on a surprising number of levels.

On the surface, this is a gloriously gory spectacle that mashes together elements from the Dead Space video games with an approach to body horror that feels like Tetsuo: The Iron Man filtered through Junji Ito. Our hapless hero is Alto, communications specialist aboard the Yellowjacket, a merchant vessel whose cargo consists of hundreds upon hundreds of human cadavers, because this is a future in which dead human bodies are routinely recycled into robots called (with appropriately morbid humor) wraiths. This is Hailey Piper’s idea of a totally normal future and it’s exactly the level of batshit she can pull off while calmly drinking hot tea and getting a pedicure. One day she might finally decide to get weird and then we’ll all have to worry.

As the story opens, Alto has just managed some quality time with their crush, ship’s psychologist Esme, when they awaken to find her missing and the entire vessel overrun with horrific monsters resembling giant brains trailing a mass of tentacle-like extrusions. Whatever these beings are, they’re capable of hacking not only human minds but human bodies as well, absorbing victims into their biomass. But by a lucky accident, Alto — who has already undergone quite a lot of body modification — ends up with nodes from a wraith robot embedded into their skull. This not only enhances Alto’s own mental faculties but protects them from the brains’ psychic assault as well.

It’s now a race against time. Alto naturally has to get from one end of the Yellowjacket to the other, accompanied by the ship’s only remaining wraith, Zelany. It is entirely okay to enjoy the story strictly on this level, as a kind of video game pastiche with our hero surviving challenge after challenge, culminating in a climactic boss battle. As a sci-fi popcorn novella, it’s short and pacey enough to deliver plenty of entertainment value without overstaying its welcome. But the most fun you’ll have with Your Mind Is a Terrible Thing comes from peeling back all the layers of creativity Piper is working with here.

For instance, there’s the nice cyberpunk touch where Alto’s gender-fluidity has been physically realized with a biotech prosthesis that can, shall we say, go either direction depending on Alto’s choice of partner. (There is quite possibly no more cyberpunk thing a person can do to their body than change their sex.) As a person, Alto is an absolute chaos of deep-seated anxiety disorders, and if Piper wanted to be wildly unsubtle with her battling-mental-illness metaphors, than she couldn’t have done it better than to have her poor protagonist attacked by a horde of angry brains. All kidding aside, where most stories like this feature a crew getting picked off one by one in cliché fashion by generic monstrosities, Piper lets this novella be Alto’s story about overcoming their personal inner demons. The action has higher stakes not because the fate of the universe is at risk (although it kinda is), but because of the empathy we feel for this lone fighter who isn’t ready for any of this but has to step up and rise to the occasion anyway.

Finally, there are two popular SF tropes Piper has fun playing with: that of human-to-alien communication (which most of you will be familiar with from the film Arrival and the Ted Chiang story it adapted), and the distinctly Lovecraftian fixation on insanity. I won’t spoil exactly how she adapts and explores those ideas to suit her storytelling purposes, because this tale really comes alive when you experience that for yourself. But Piper never takes the easy, conventional approach at any point, right down to the little grace notes like Alto’s harmonica. When you go into a story expecting nothing more than undemanding entertainment and a bloody good time, only to find out you ended up with one that had all of that and brains…now that is a wonderful thing.