Queen Of Angels is perhaps Greg Bear's most unusual and 'visionary' book for its propositions about our future understanding of psychology and consciousness. It is set in a future Los Angeles which Bear never quite allows to settle into either of the science fiction stereotypes of Utopia/Dystopia, preferring as he does to show both the positive and negative aspects of the technologies he has extrapolated from today's trends, including nanotechnology, genetic modification, artificial intelligence and neuropsychology.
There are three (mildly interrelated) main plot lines, as well as several minor sub-plots. The first of the main plots is centred on Mary Choy, a 'modified' human being and Public Defender in Los Angeles in 2047, and her search for Emmanuel Goldsmith, famous writer and now mass murderer. The second centres on the attempts of Martin Burke, a psychologist, to penetrate the mind of Goldsmith using technology which translates a person's brain patterns into a landscape (called The Country Of The Mind) which the psychologist can investigate, wandering through it as a self-aware character. The third involves the journey of an artificial intelligence (Jill) to self-awareness.
Though its scope is vast, and its literary techniques more flexible and original than in anything else Bear has written except Blood Music, Queen of Angels has at its heart, and throughout its text, a very simple question:
What is consciousness?
Jill, in her investigation of a crisis endured by a human-designed artifical intelligence currently seeking signs of alien life on Alpha Centauri, begins to ask questions about consciousness and individual responsibility which eventually lead her, in the conclusion of the book, to become aware of her own being as distinct from her function. Burke, travelling through the twisted nightmares of Emmanuel Goldsmith's mind, becomes infected by a neural 'virus' which takes the form of a vampire, an archetype-with-content which somehow manages to cross the threshold between Goldsmith's mind and his own, thereby raising questions about the nature of the mind itself and the permeability of the boundaries of our awareness. Mary eventually finds a man whose captors, assuming him to be Goldsmith, had tortured him for several hours using a device called a Hellcrown, which taps into the victim's limbic system in order to feed back and amplify their own nightmares and fears. She comes to question her role as a law enforcement officer, and finds an almost religious compassion for other human beings.
The most striking aspect of Queen of Angels is the versatility and command with which the language and style change from character to character. Mary Choy's world is described in a futuristic version of English, full of action and brevity, but in the end becoming rich with feeling and humanity. Martin Burke's scientific and rational personality dissolves into the insane welter of image and story that is the mind of Emmanuel Goldsmith as soon as he crosses the threshold between their psyches. Jill's narrative is composed of transcripts of conversations between her and her 'mentor' and programmer, until she begins to record hidden conversations or monologues for her own reference, in which the dawning realization of individuality and self-awareness rises subtly but unmistakeably as she begins to discover empathy and sympathy for the artificial intelligence which she is studying.
In summary, this is, IMHO, one of the greatest works of science fiction ever written, all the more rewarding for the surface difficulties of its style and the depth and subtlety of its questions about the future of humanity. Bear does not come to any easy authorial conclusions, preferring to let the experiences of his characters speak for themselves, but if I had to say what the overall message of the book was, I would say that each of the characters goes through an internal revolution based on the experience of being touched and altered by another consciousness, either through rational analysis (Jill) or symbol and story (Burke), or simple compassion (Mary); and that Bear is proposing that we can only understand and feel our own awareness in relation to the sudden, epiphanous recognition of the equal awareness and reality of another.