Morgan (2016)

Minor spoilers ahead, but still a lot less revealing than the trailer.

I’m feeling a little lonely here. Few people seem to like Morgan, the 2016 sci fi thriller written by Seth Owen and directed by newcomer Luke Scott. Among its producers is Luke’s rather more famous father, Ridley Scott, which I guess explains why Luke got such a stellar cast for his feature-length directorial debut.

Research facility

Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy, who looks like she might be Hollywood’s new It-Girl) is a genetically engineered child – the ‘L-9 prototype’ – with advanced, accelerated emotional and physical development. Something is clearly wrong with her design however; when Dr Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh) tells Morgan that she won’t be allowed to go outside for a while, Morgan stabs her repeatedly in the eye.

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Morgan, missing the outdoors

A corporate risk management consultant, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is sent to assess the viability of the project, as explained by a voiceover from her superior, played by Brian Cox. Lee is a stone-cold professional whose ruthless manner doesn’t go down well with most members of the team of specialists who designed, created and care for Morgan, because they’ve come to see her as their child, and formed a kind of family unit around her. Instead of lab tests and training sessions, video footage of the L-9 project shows the team playing with Morgan outside and throwing her a birthday party. They speak of her with pride and love, and Lee crisply tells them that Morgan is not a ‘she’ but an ‘it’ who has no rights whatsoever.

Lee Weathers

Lee Weathers

Because it concerns a young, artificial creature whose humanity is called into question, considers the difficulty of humans having close or intimate relationships with artificial beings, and features an isolated research facility in the woods, Morgan gets compared to movies like Splice (2009) and Ex Machina (2014), and it doesn’t fare well. The other two are genuinely interested in the methods and ethics of creating artificial life. In Scott’s movie, it’s not long before you stop asking whether Morgan can truly feel human emotion and settle down to see if she can beat Lee in brutal hand-to-hand combat or not.

house

The house. Surely nothing bad could happen here

Morgan gleams with potential but remains determinedly superficial. For example, when Dr Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti!) conducts a psych evaluation, he interrogates Morgan about the fact that she calls the team her friends. She may consider them friends, he says, but do they consider her as such? Would a friend keep you locked in a cage? It’s a good question. Can the scientists be her friends in any meaningful way? Can you be friends with a person or creature you created to be a weapon, a ‘potential product line’? What responsibilities do Morgan’s creators have towards her? Well, think about that on your own time; this film just gets violent.

psych-evaluation

The psych evaluation

Similarly, there’s the troubling question of Morgan’s relationship with behaviourist Amy (Rose Leslie) who has ‘boundary issues’. Amy is clearly attracted to Morgan and the feeling may be mutual. There’s no evidence that their relationship has become intimate, but it could, if given the opportunity. The thing is, Morgan is five years old. What the fuck is Amy doing? Then again, Morgan develops at an accelerated rate, so she already looks like a teenager, and she has enhanced emotional development. She’s a new kind of life form, so we can’t necessarily judge their relationship according to the usual standards. If this sounds complicated, well, you need not worry because the movie doesn’t have the guts to take it any further anyway.

Amy

Amy

I wondered though, if Morgan is manipulating Amy and the other characters, perhaps to ensure her own survival or just because that’s how she’s learned to be around people. We know that she has some level of precognition, as demonstrated when she gets under Dr Shapiro’s skin by revealing that he has a daughter who he doesn’t get to see very often. How much of her behaviour involves her ‘reading’ people and behaving in whatever way they want or expect her to behave? Not that that’s especially disturbing; isn’t it just an enhanced version of how most people behave? Nevermind – skip to action sequence.

Amy-and-Morgan

Amy and Morgan, crossing boundaries

Despite its commitment issues, I like Morgan. A lot. It isn’t the cerebral sf thriller that it might look like, or that its cast seems to suggest it is but it’s way better than most of the commercial sf out there, especially the superhero movies that get much more attention. I’m comparing them because Morgan gave me the entertainment I want but seldom find in the latest blockbusters. I don’t expect them to be brilliant; I just want them to be fun, but they’re way too long and they generate such little interest in the characters and plots that even the action scenes bore me. They waste my time.

Morgan didn’t. It’s fast-paced and efficient, stylish, and exceptionally beautiful to look at. I like the colour palettes and the way they shift with the narrative. Most of the major characters are female and the film doesn’t objectify them.

It successfully occupies an interstitial space that’s thoughtful enough to engage my intellectual interests, then indulge my mindless ones. It blooms with ideas, but avoids the risks of dealing with them. Yes, that’s cowardly. It starts out smart and geek-chic, then goes mainstream. That can be seen as a good thing, not because martial arts are more exciting than moral debates, but because the latter requires a deft touch. Of course, I have no idea if Seth Owen and Luke Scott were up to the task; I’m saying it might have been worse if they’d tried and performed poorly. As it is, I found plenty to think about, to enjoy, and I can’t argue with my own satisfaction.

The Troop by Nick Cutter

The Troop by Nick CutterTitle: The Troop
Author:
 
Nick Cutter (Craig Davidson)
Published:
 
7 January 2014
Publisher: 
Gallery Books
Genre:
 
horror, science fiction
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
4/10

Five boy scouts and their scoutmaster go to a small deserted island for a weekend of camping. On the first night, a stranger comes to their cabin looking for shelter. He is horrifically thin, and monstrously hungry. Scoutmaster Tim tries to help him, but his good intentions only bring disaster.

The stranger is carrying a vicious bioengineered parasite that soon begins infecting the scouts, giving them the same insanely torturous hunger that can only lead to a miserable death. The boys are young enough to hope that the adults will fix everything, but Tim quickly becomes more dangerous than helpful, and there is no hope that anyone from the main island will rescue them because they’ve been quarantined following the stranger’s escape from the lab where the parasite was tested. The scouts are stranded without additional supplies, and a storm is coming.

To make things worse, they’re a mismatched bunch who aren’t really friends, can’t trust each other, and soon begin to turn on each other. Kent is a bully who would endanger everyone in his determination to be the alpha male. Ephraim and Max are best friends, but Ephraim has anger management issues and is as much a danger to himself as everyone else. Newton is the stereotypical victim – a sweet, fat, nerdy boy who is constantly tormented by everyone else. And Shelley is a psychopath, a sadistic child who relishes this chance to play the kinds of twisted games that normal society would otherwise prevent.

Children trapped on a deserted island without adults, lots of violence, violent deaths, the breakdown of social controls, and the torment of a smart fat boy – naturally this novel has been compared to Lord of the Flies by William Golding, which was one of the few high school setworks I actually enjoyed reading. In the acknowledgements the author also says he was strongly influenced by Stephen King’s Carrie (another favourite), specifically in the use of new reports, transcripts, and other documents to build on the narrative.

However, The Troop reminds me much more of Dreamcatcher, also by Stephen King, but one of my least favourite books by him. Dreamcatcher also featured a small group of characters isolated in a cabin in the woods. They encounter a stranger who is infected with a fatal parasite. The host’s body is drastically affected by the growth of the parasite and dies horribly when the parasite escapes. Like King, Cutter also includes lots of flashbacks and anecdotes to fill in the characters’ backgrounds. Most of the kids are a bit troubled – absent, neglectful or domineering parents, psychological problems, social problems, etc. The one major difference is that King’s characters are close, loyal friends, while the boys in The Troop are not. Finally – and most memorably – both Dreamcatcher and The Troop are really, really gross.

This, for me, is the crux of the novel. It’s one of the most revolting books I’ve ever read and if Cutter was actually inspired by Dreamcatcher, then I’d say it was the stomach-turning aspects of the book that captivated him. There are many other things going on in Dreamcatcher, but physical horror seems to be the focus of The Troop, and I’m not only talking about gore. The parasite in the novel is a bioengineered tapeworm, and tapeworms are gross enough when they’re normal. Cutter pushes them to disgusting extremes.

The Troop includes graphic descriptions of the worms, the worms oozing out of human and animal bodies, the shocking deterioration of the hosts’ bodies (they lose most of their body weight in a matter of hours), self-mutilation, horrific animal experiments during the  development of the worm, animal torture (by one of the boys), and other animal cruelty. I almost abandoned the book after a particularly bad experiment on a chimpanzee. After that I skipped over extended passages describing animal cruelty; I can be very determined when trying to finish a book I don’t like, but there are some things I won’t put up with. Add to this other nauseating details, like the things the hosts will eat to appease their ravening hunger – algae, rotten fish, a dead tapeworm, and their own bodies. Not that eating makes any difference, because it’s physically impossible for the hosts to ever satisfy their hunger.

It’s a sickening story. I don’t think any book has made me squirm as much as this did or made me want to abandon it simply because it was so fucking disgusting. And admittedly, that makes The Troop very effective as horror. It’s brutal, and once it gets going, it’s relentless. Not in a frightening way (at least not to me) but certainly harrowing.

The downside is that it’s extremely unpleasant to read. This kind of excessive, visceral savagery, used purely for its own sake, is my least favourite kind of horror. I didn’t hate it the way I hate a badly written or stupid book; it’s neither of those things. But I hated that it was so nauseating to read. I don’t have a problem with gore per se, but I prefer it to be one part of a more complex and unnerving story, not its defining features.

A few other things about the novel stood out for me. The virulent, fatal infection is a standard horror trope, and I think Cutter uses it well, even though it’s not to my tastes. The reasons for creating the parasites are mentioned in recordings and court testimonies. The boys are at the age where they’re starting to question the authority and dependability of adults, so this becomes a major issue, given their situation. Sometimes it add an interesting dimension to the story, like the way it affects their interactions with Scoutmaster Tim, for example. But at other times it just makes the boys a bit whiny.

The characters are ok but a bit one-dimensional, typically reduced to their definitive qualities. Nor is there anything particularly interesting about their relationships. As I mentioned earlier, the boys aren’t friends, except for Ephraim and Max. The five have obviously spent plenty of time together as scouts, but apparently this has done nothing to bring them closer. They often come across as assholes, especially Kent the bully and Shelley the psychopath. They all abuse poor Newt pretty much constantly – it’s like they can’t talk to him without insulting him, can’t include him without making him their victim. This is portrayed as being the natural way of things among 14-year-old boys.

I liked some of the flashbacks and the insights they gave into the characters’ behaviour, but besides feeling sorry for Newt, I didn’t care about any of them that much. Except perhaps for Ephraim, who has a more interesting mix of good and bad qualities, and whose story arc was more complex than the others.

Shelley the psychopath does at least add an intriguing dynamic to the situation. When I say psychopath I really do mean pathological in terrifying, clinical terms. Shelley doesn’t have emotions like normal people do, except for the excitement he gets from causing pain and fear. He’s delighted by the prospect of fucking with a group of terrified people, so he adds a touch of psychological horror to the gore. But he also tortures small animals, thus adding to the list of things I don’t want to read.

Ultimately, I’m not sure if I can say The Troop is a bad book. Everything that I think makes it horrible is also what makes it a good horror novel. At least for hardcore horror fans. If you want to be grossed out, if the word “repulsive” would make you look closer, then you’d probably love this. But I would tell most readers to steer clear, especially animal lovers and the squeamish. Personally, I’d be happy to forget I ever read it.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and CrakeTitle: Oryx and Crake
Series: MaddAddam Trilogy #1
Author: 
Margaret Atwood
Published: 2003
Publisher: 
Virago Press (my edition)
Genre: 
science fiction, dystopian, post-apocalyptic
Source:
 own copy
Rating: 
10/10

This is the first time I’m giving a book a 10/10 rating on Violin in a Void. While I’ve reviewed excellent books that could rival this one, I’ve reserved the highest rating for books that also make excellent re-reads. I think the best books are those that won’t fade with familiarity but actually become more enjoyable as you get to know them better. Oryx and Crake is the first such book that I’ve reviewed.

That said, it’s incredibly bleak, and I’d forgotten exactly how dark it gets. But while it scares and horrifies me, it’s also such a pleasure to read because of the elegance of Atwood’s writing and the sophistication of her vision. The narrative is split into two future time periods that also happen to fall into two sub genres – post-apocalyptic and dystopian. In the post-apocalyptic narrative a man named Snowman is a lone survivor of a global catastrophe for which he holds his friend Crake responsible. In his loneliness, he imagines the voice of his lover Oryx teasing and comforting him. But like Crake, Oryx is long gone. Snowman lives in a tree, wraps himself in old bedsheets, and scavenges meagre supplies from the remains of human civilisation. He is also the increasingly unnecessary guardian of the Crakers, a race of bio-engineered post-humans designed by Crake to inherit a ravaged earth.

The story of how this all came to be is told in the non-linear dystopian narrative, beginning when Snowman was a child named Jimmy. His world – our future – is characterised by bio-engineering, artificial food, extinction, climate change and environmental destruction. Great advances in medicine are matched by the creation of catastrophic viruses. The scientists who work for giant bio-engineering corporations live privileged lives in highly secure-compounds designed to save them from ever having to go out into the disease-ridden ‘pleeblands’ where the masses live.

As Atwood herself has said, “Every novel begins with a what if  and for Oryx and Crake she asked “What if we continue down the road we’re already on? How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who’s got the will to stop us?” (Curious Pursuits, 2003, p.323). The questions are primarily ecological, and the answer to the first one is the dystopia where Jimmy’s story begins. The answer to the last questions is: Crake.

We first encounter him as a creepy child, a genius who seems to be studying everyone, who hides his feelings, and has secret plans that Jimmy never fully understands even when he’s caught up in the aftermath as Snowman. Oryx, the woman he loves, is similarly elusive, and somehow they’re both a part of the ruined world he lives in now.

Because he’s a “word person”, Snowman turns Oryx and Crake into myth for the Crakers. They are the Children of Crake, and the animals are the Children of Oryx, respected and never eaten. With the world reverting to its natural state, the Crakers give the impression of return to Eden, to paradise – they’re incredibly innocent without any violent tendencies or any knowledge of the world before. They’re also pretty damn weird. Crake designed them with myriad animal traits to keep them close to nature and avoid violent conflict. They wear no clothes (their skin is thick and UV-resistant), they eat leaves, purr like cats to heal injuries (yes, cats’ purring can do that). They’re designed to be free from lust, jealousy, racism and religion. The Crakers are basically Crake’s attempt to fix everything that was wrong with the human race and then make his own improvements on the basic design. It’s really interesting to see how he’s played god here.

Snowman of course, is stuck with the original design and isn’t suited to the world humanity has so badly damaged. This post-apocalyptic world of Atwood’s is more subtle than others I’ve read. Snowman simply finds himself at the mercy of the natural world as it consumes a dead civilisation. He sleeps in a tree to stay safe from predators. Because of climate change, he must to take shelter from the unbearably hot sun and daily storm. Things he probably never thought much about have become serious dangers or annoyances – ants, bug bites, sweating, starving to death. Simply scratching open a scab might lead to serious infection. Loneliness is driving him mad, and he finds little company among the strange Crakers.

The post-apocalyptic world is in many ways a version of the dystopia that led to it. While Snowman fears nature, Jimmy grew up in a world where humanity destroys and modifies nature. Jimmy’s father works for OrganInc, a company that creates pigoons – bio-engineered pigs that grow skin, organs and even brain tissue for human transplants. After the apocalypse however, the pigoons roam free. They could tear Snowman to shreds and eat him, and they’re extremely smart because of the human brain tissue they were designed to produce. Equally dangerous are the wolvogs – vicious wolves designed to look like friendly dogs.

The food that Jimmy eats is often pretty gross and almost always artificial. Dairy products seem to be a thing of the past, and you get crap like “cheese food” instead. There are the disgusting “Chickie-Nobs”, a kind of bland KFC-style junk food made from bio-engineered ‘chickens’ that are just fat bodies with mouths. No heads, beaks or feet because none of those things are needed to produce meat. Often when natural foods like real eggs, fish or meat appear, it’s described as a rare and expensive luxury. On the other hand, rainforests are destroyed to grow Happi Cuppa coffee.

Equally revolting is the media that Crake and Jimmy consume. They don’t watch movies and TV series, but watch videos online – animal snuff, assisted suicides, executions, child pornography. Disturbingly, none of this seems to be considered particularly abnormal. Two teenage boys watching hundreds of hours of real executions and kiddie porn is portrayed like two teenage boys watching normal TV and a bit of porn today.

Jimmy only pauses to consider what he’s doing when he first sees Oryx. At the time she has no name, she’s “just another little girl on a porno site” (103). But she turns to the camera and Jimmy imagines that she looks at him with contempt. For years, Jimmy is haunted by the look on her face and the way she seems to judge him.

It’s appropriate that the first feeling Oryx evokes in Jimmy is a kind of moral shock. While most of the novel reveals the environmental consequences of problems like overpopulation, Oryx is a testament to the more human side – stark poverty, trafficking, child abuse. After Jimmy has met Oryx and started sleeping with her, she tells him her life story – how she was sold into slavery by a mother who couldn’t afford to keep her and went from selling flowers to tourists, to following men into their hotel rooms, and then onto the kind of child pornography where Jimmy and Crake first saw her.

This is disturbing stuff, although Oryx tells it in a gentle matter-of-fact way that makes it easier on everyone. Jimmy actually doesn’t like this, because, in his opinion, she’s too forgiving of the men involved. She feels sorry for some for being so pathetic, she’s grateful to her pimp for looking after her, she giggled at men’s penises because she thought they looked funny. This is not what Jimmy wants to hear, “all this sweetness and acceptance and crap”. He wants her to cry, to say how traumatic it was, and to hate the men who abused her so that she can be the victim and he can be her saviour. And that bothers me about him.

But honestly, I don’t know how to feel about Oryx’s character either. She’s so elusive I can’t quite grasp her. Then again, my feelings about the other characters can never be simple either. Crake is both monstrous and admirable. I find him hateful at first, but out of all the characters, he’s the only one who both expresses anger at what humans are doing to the world, and actually manages to do something about it.

Jimmy is our connection to the story (he’s a “word person”, ideal for the job), and there are many reasons to empathise with him, especially when we see how neglectful his parents are. His mother is deeply depressed, agonising over the ethics of the work she and her husband have done. You might identify with his, while hating her for the way she treats her young son. Which leads you to feel sorry for Jimmy, but then he also watches child pornography. The thing is, he’s probably the character most similar to you as the reader – an ordinary person, who just gets swept along in the habits of society, no matter how repulsive those are. Jimmy/Snowman is not someone who will change the world or even oppose it.

The world does get changed however, and you could argue a great deal about the ethics that go into that, into genetic engineering, and the design of the Crakers. Will our extinction be the only thing that stops us murdering our world? Are the Crakers a better kind of human? Would you call them human at all? Is it ok for Crake to play god by creating them, or for any of the scientists to splice together species or grow human organs and brains in pigs and then eat them? Atwood leaves you with a thousand things to think about and not all of it is bad – there’s a lot of science that’s just really awesome. Still, the results of Atwood’s what ifs are so plausible it’s terrifying. Few novels have hit me as hard as Oryx and Crake does with its vision of the future, it’s exquisite writing,  and unforgettable characters. I will read this again, and again.

Ideally, I’d also like to say that everyone should read this book, but I know it’s not for every reader. While I take great pleasure from it, it’s not a fun book in any way, and it’d be completely wasted on readers only looking for entertainment. I find that it’s a smooth, easy read, but at the same time this is very much literary sci fi that deserves your attention, not just something you can breeze through.

If you’re a serious science fiction fan who enjoys the genre for its ideas and its vision, you can’t not read this. And I don’t give a crap what Atwood says about this not being true sci fi – it is. It’s some of the best sci fi I’ve ever read. Books like this are why I love this genre, why I love fiction, why I love reading.

Review of Earth Thirst by Mark Teppo

Earth Thirst by Mark TeppoTitle: Earth Thirst
Series: The Arcadian Conflict #1
Author: Mark Teppo
Published: 
8 January 2013
Publisher: 
Night Shade Books
Genre: 
science fantasy
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
3/10

The blurb for Earth Thirst, with its emphasis on a dying Earth plagued by an overbreeding, over-consuming human race, and multinational corporations wrecking the environment in their blind pursuit of profit, led me to assume that this would be a dystopian novel set in the future. The scary thing – in reality, as much as in the novel – is that it’s a dystopian novel set in the present day. The things I mentioned from the blurb are true, of course, but when I read the word ‘dying’ I thought of future catastrophes to which we are no doubt headed.

In the novel, Mark Teppo gives the Earth a glimmer of hope by re-imagining vampires as eco-warriors. They’re still undead blood-drinkers, but their characteristics are explained according to their natural connection to the Earth: they sleep underground because the Earth heals and sustains them (they don’t even need to drink blood if they can bury themselves instead) and they dislike crossing the ocean, not only because it takes them far from the nourishing earth, but because salt water is dehydrating. They aren’t averse to sunlight so much as the pollution in the air. Although the term ‘vampire’ is used on a few occasions, they are better known as Arcadians, a reference to the utopian land of unspoiled wilderness where people live in harmony with nature. Their Arcadia is a never-seen homeland where they can return to “Mother’s embrace” by burying themselves in the rich soil at the roots of a great tree (who I think is Mother).

The story is narrated by Silas, a 33-century old Arcadian soldier who fought in the battle of Troy. When the novel opens, he and three other Arcadians are on some random mission aboard the ship of a militant environmental organisation that aims to stop whalers in the South Pacific.  The mission turns out to be a trap; when the Arcadians board a whaling ship, one of their team is seriously injured by a corrosive agent – a new anti-vampire weapon for which Silas and his companions provided unwitting test subjects.

Soon after, the environmentalist’s ship is captured and burned, and Silas is betrayed and left to die in the waters of the South Pacific. But he survives, and makes it to the mainland where he starts to investigate what happened. He tracks down and rescues Mere (Meredith) a journalist who was on the boat and with whom Silas has a vague history. Silas thinks of himself as a hard-headed soldier, and he hopes Mere can help him out with her planning and investigative skills. Together they uncover corporate conspiracies and travel from Australia to Easter Island and mainland Chile in the search for the truth, which undermines everything Silas blindly believes in.

I’m all for the eco-warrior theme behind this plot; some of my favourite stories involve humanity (or at most of it) getting wiped out in retaliation for what we’ve done to the planet. But Earth Thirst left me completely cold. It wasn’t a particularly bad novel, but it’s a novel I never managed to care about.

The vampire as eco-warrior sort of intrigued me for a moment, but I’m sorry to admit that I mostly just found it really lame. I’ve come to know vampires as monsters or monstrous figures of romance (which are lame in a different way) but there is so much vampire fiction on the market right now, I struggle to take any of it seriously unless, ironically, the book is meant to be funny. This new mythos didn’t work for me either. The corrosive agent that has been invented to take down the Arcadians is a weed killer that harms plants and vampires but not humans. When the Arcadians bury themselves, they become one with the Earth. They love organic fruit and vegetables. Silas might be a bad-ass, kick-ass vampire soldier, but he keeps whining about how much he wants to return to Mother and how he always serves her without question, even though she steals his memories to protect him.

Silas is also a dreadfully boring character. He keeps talking about all these things he’s feeling (most of it regarding Mother), but his emotions were no more than words to me. For someone who’s lived for 33 centuries, he really lacks depth. There is a series of flashbacks to his life before he became an Arcadian, when he was a seer (the kind who read the future in steaming animal innards) escaping Troy with Aeneas, but even this did nothing to make Silas’s character more interesting. Is it intentional, because Mother takes his memories (and with them his personality?) whenever he enfolds himself in her warm, nurturing embrace? Is it because he’s a soldier, whose purpose it is to fight and follow orders, not to think for himself? Not that those excuses would make me like the book more.

Mere is similarly dull as the investigator, love interest, or damsel in distress rather than an actual person. She and Silas have some kind of weird history that may or may not have involved romance, but did involve Silas saving her from a criminal who was busy cutting her throat. Now she has a scar and a crush on her rescuer, who decides to remain inexplicably chaste. I didn’t sense the slightest bit of chemistry between them anyway.

For equally inexplicable reasons, Silas sometimes withholds information from Mere, and slows the plot down. One the whole, I found it to be complex in a tedious kind of way, and there were times I lost my grasp of the details in the same way I would if I were reading legal documents. The plot didn’t really focus on the environment as much as I thought it would either – it’s more about corporate schemes and certain aspects of Arcadian society, with a few moments of almost-romance between Silas and Mere. The other ‘eco’ stories I’ve read, from boring to brilliant, generally got me all riled up about protecting the Earth, or deeply saddened at what we’ve done or could do to it, but this time the eco agenda seemed negligible. One of the few things I did enjoy were the plentiful action scenes (where Silas becomes mildly alluring), but as I read them I kept thinking how good they would look on film, rather than just appreciating what they offered on the page.

The best thing I can say is that Earth Thirst isn’t an especially bad book. I didn’t laugh at it, even when the vampires were eating organic melons or being defeated by weed killer and salt water. I didn’t yell at it for being ridiculous or badly written, because it’s not. But the fact that it barely evoked any reaction in me at all is bad enough; I will barely remember this novel by the time its sequel comes out.

Review of Germline by T.C. McCarthy

Title: Germline
Author: T.C. McCarthy
Series: The Subterrene War #1
Published: 
26 July 2011
Publisher: 
Orbit
Genre:
 science fiction, military sf
Source: own copy
Rating: 5/10

“I’ll never forget the smell: human waste, the dead, and rubbing alcohol – the smell of a Pulitzer.”

That’s what journalist Oscar Wendall thinks as he makes his way to the front line of the Subterrene War. It’s the 22nd century and the USA is once again fighting her old favourite enemy, Russia, in a bloody war over the mineral resources buried in the mountains of Kazakhstan (simply referred to as Kaz). Oscar is the first member of the press allowed on the front line (currently underground), but he doesn’t find a story so much as a new life, fighting alongside the soldiers amidst plasma bombs that will cook you alive and flechette bullets that rip you to shreds.

In fact, Oscar is a dreadful journalist but a decent soldier. It’s not long before he gets fired by his paper, but he finds ways of getting back into his armour and out onto the battlefield. He falls in love with one of the “genetics” – beautiful teenage girls genetically engineered to be the USA’s supersoldiers. They’re clones, indoctrinated all their lives with a religion that teaches them to live for war and hope for a glorious death in battle. They’re often on Oscar’s mind and he finds his way from one battlefield, trying to deal with all the horrors of war.

Germline is known as a non-stop, action-packed novel about the brutality of war. This is true. I couldn’t keep track of the number of battle scenes, each of them full of explosions and death. The novel hurtles along from one action scene to the next and apparently doesn’t have much time for things like character development or world building.

The result is that a lot of events or emotions feel tacked on. It’s not that these things are necessarily implausible, but the build-up to them is rushed and insubstantial. The author tells you things that you don’t quite feel. For example, we’re told that fighting underground causes soldiers to be fearful of the surface. In the tunnels, danger comes from only one direction, but topside it can come from multiple directions, with the sky being the most threatening. This makes perfect sense, but it doesn’t feel right for Oscar to develop this fear within the very first chapter. The novel doesn’t give us a chance to really understand the experience of being in the tunnels and the effect it has on people. We just get a quick run-through, and suddenly Oscar is speaking like a war vet.

There are other examples. Oscar makes a few friends among the soldiers and when some of them die he goes on and on about how deeply this affects him. It sounds insincere when these friendships don’t have much time on the page and Oscar doesn’t even bother to learn the soldiers’ real names, going only by their nicknames. When Oscar falls in love with a genetic named Bridgette, he does so in a matter of hours, claiming that it “was easy to fall in love because neither of us was likely to live long anyway” (p.66).

The world building is equally feeble. We’re told almost nothing about the war beyond the simple fact that Russia and the USA (along with some allies) are fighting over mineral resources in Kazakhstan. But how did the war start? What are the metals they’re mining used for? How the hell can the Americans lay claim to mineral resources in Kazakhstan? (my boyfriend answered that last one by pointing out that they’re basically doing the same thing in the Middle East. Fair point). What kind of social changes allowed the USA to regress to the extent that genetics have replaced female soldiers with the idea that there will be more women to give birth to more soldiers? What do US citizens and the rest of the world think of the war? Is McCarthy saving the details for the second and third books in the series?

As a journalist Oscar is the ideal character to give the reader this information, but he’s so bad at his job that he just doesn’t seem interested in any of it; he just wants to be in the warzones with a gun in his hand. I can’t understand how even a barely competent editor could have given him this assignment. Besides being an awful reporter, he’s got a long history of substance abuse. He actually picks up a new drug addiction in the first chapter, and seems to be addicted to being in the war as well. That’s the only good explanation I can think of for why he insists on staying. Oscar himself is rather evasive on the topic. For all his interior monologues on the war, his character is a bit flat. We don’t learn much about anyone else either – a disappointment for me, because I really wanted to know more about the genetics, the most interesting feature of the novel. I wanted to know more about their weird religion (a kind of modified Christianity), the prayers they say before battles, and the fact that they are shot when they turn 18, because their minds become unstable and their bodies begin to rot. Oscar’s obsession with the genetics seems to end at wanting to be close to one of them; he doesn’t ask them many questions when he is.

So let’s face it – the focus of this novel is combat. It’s about the weapons, the armour, the explosions, the gunfire, the corpses. It’s a barrage of bullets, grenades, plasma bombs, blood, gore, faeces, and mangled bodies. We follow Oscar from one battleground to another, with him pontificating about the war in between. He talks about his armour, mostly about how disgusting it is when it comes to waste disposal (or lack thereof). He goes on about either wanting to fight or wanting to get out. He talks about the friends he’s lost. And then a bomb explodes and he’s running for his life.

Despite all the graphic violence, Germline has this odd PG-13 feel to it because anything sexual is glossed over. When Oscar puts on his armour for the first time and hooks up the tubes used for his waste disposal, he refers to his penis as “your you-know-what” (3). Later, there are a few sex scenes, but they’re all just start with a bit of kissing and then fade out with “when we were done” or whatever. It’s like either the author or the publishers are trying to keep this clean enough to market to a teenage audience, and violence, insanely, has always been deemed more acceptable than sex. However, it seems so ridiculous that a man like Oscar is uncomfortable referring bluntly to his own genitals or that he’d go into detail about everything that happens to him but not the sex that he apparently finds so fulfilling. A pity; I think the sex scenes could have done a lot to give a little emotional depth to this novel.

In many ways, this Germline reminds me of The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974) – the constant fighting, the pace, the lack of character development, and a sense that the war is being fought for its own sake, rather than for the reasons stated. But even though I often didn’t understand the science of The Forever War and I found the characters forgettable, it still made an impact on me. You really felt the brutality of the war, and the unbelievable waste of life. It was a short book, but a forceful one.

Germline is longer but has less of an impact. It didn’t live up to the hype, and I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. With its lack of emotional engagement or details about its world, it was often boring. All those action scenes just didn’t do it for me, especially since I didn’t really care what happened to Oscar.

Strangely enough though, I’m actually looking forward to reading the sequel, Exogene. Exogene’s protagonist is a genetic, and shows the war from their perspective. I wanted to whack Oscar over the head for not asking more questions about them, but book 2 will give me a chance to get that story while Oscar won’t be there to get in the way.

Buy Germline (The Subterrene War #1) at The Book Depository

Review of Seed by Rob Ziegler

Title: Seed
Author:  
Rob Ziegler
Published: 15 November 2011
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Genre: science fiction, biopunk, dystopia, post-apocalyptic
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGally
My Rating: 7/10

It’s the 22nd century. The world’s oil supplies have finally dried up, but humanity has done the damage and the climate has risen by a devastating 5⁰C. North America is a wasteland, with most of its people reduced to starving migrants wandering across the land in the constant search for food and water.

The only viable course of food is Sartori – a massive, sentient, bioengineered city made of living flesh and bone. Its inhabitants are all post-human, genetically engineered beings whose main purpose is to design, produce and grow seed – a climate-resistant seed whose crops are now America’s only means of survival.

Then Pihadassa, a Sartori Designer (geneticist), defects from the living city in order to play out her own plans for sustainable life. Among the migrants, Pihadassa becomes known by the rumour of ‘the Corn Mother’ – a woman who will save them all from starvation. To Brood, a Latino teenage orphan, it’s just a rumour. He and his austistic brother Pollo, along with Hondo, an old man, get by as small-time thieves and Brood has no interest, or faith, in a search for a different life. Nevertheless, circumstances put him on the path to the colony that the Corn Mother is supposedly establishing, where fresh food is freely available.

Also on the hunt for Pihadassa is Agent Sienna Doss, the soldier who never Fucks Up. The US government – or at least the remaining scraps of it – want to get the Designer under their control so she can create seed for them. The government resents the power and necessity of Sartori, especially since its only remaining function is to distribute seed around the nation – a function Sartori could easily perform on its own. It’s a government “afraid of its own obsolescence” and Pihadassa represents an opportunity for it to reclaim power.

In the meantime, within the flesh walls of Sartori, Pihadassa’s mate Sumedha suffers the pain of his partner’s absence, while continuing with a series of genetic experiments that will affect both Sartori and the future of the human population.

Brood, Doss and Sumedha’s stories slowly move toward each other in an interesting and relevant novel that depicts a painfully plausible environmental future, the possibilities of genetic engineering, and the many ethical conundrums that are inevitably raised.

This review has been a difficult one for me to write, because there’s a hell of a lot going here. I’ve outlined the structure of the plot, but in fact it takes a while for it all to get put into place. Much of the first half of text is devoted to world-building and getting to know the characters. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does slow the overall. The characters  themselves undergo a lot without moving the main plot forward all that much until the last third or so. For example, we spend a lot of time with Brood, who gives us a glimpse into what is now the life of the average American – endless travelling across a hot, dusty landscape, the constant threat of violence, and hunger that’s as much a part of life as breathing.

Doss on the other hand, enjoys a relatively privileged life as a government agent. She has a diet of “vat-grown chicken breast and weirdly perfect Sartori vegetables”, has well-made clothes and shoes, and is in good shape to do the many violent things the government requires of her. Normally I admire strong female characters, but I have to admit I didn’t particularly like Doss. She’s an archetypal American soldier – brash, gung-ho, and cold; patriotic but increasingly jaded. She’s not the type of character I generally have much interest in, and I felt no different here.

The most interesting character was Sumedha, Pihadassa’s mate, partly because he gives us a perspective on the best part of the novel – Sartori and all its related genetic creations. I’ve encountered other structures made of flesh in science fiction, but the scale of Sartori and its situation in a barren land makes it especially alien and amazing:

The city spread out below, an intermingled series of bending muscle towers and soft domes twined abruptly with the concrete, brick and plexi of the old city. Shadowy bone latticework showed through translucent skin. A thousand hearts beat oxygen and heat into a thousand buildings, pumped waste out onto the compost heaps along the northern fields. Far beneath Sumedha a group of landraces moved slowly on their hands and knees along a snake scale street. Their rough voices sang as their hands polished the scales with fur brushes. Sumedha closed his eyes and touched the wall, sure he could feel the city’s pleasure at the touch of its children’s brushes. A warm sensation spread through his body…Love. He opened his eyes and the helix [DNA] danced. Each building a different expression of its strange and brilliant will, yet part of a whole that fed sensation down lush nerve matrices to the center, here, to Satori tower, where Sumedha stood touching flesh, almost connected. Over it all stretched the dome, a mother’s womb shielding the city and its children from the mad seasonal swings of a climate knocked from its axis.

Sartori manages to be both grotesque and beautiful, depending on how you feel about its organic structure. People sleep cradled in flesh pods or amniotic sacs. Opening a ‘door’ involves a muscle contraction that parts flesh. Light comes in the soft glow of biolumes under the skin, and in some cases the colour changes to reflect the mood of a room’s inhabitant. Most of Sartori’s energy comes from photosynthesis, and the skin of the dome turns green and gurgles with sugar production in the hot sun. During winter it grows fur for warmth, and the rooms too have floors covered in soft fur.

Sartori’s inhabitants include Designers, advocates and landraces. The landraces are worker clones, designed with an instinct for labour. The advocates are perhaps the coolest creatures in the book, but also the most vicious. They’re designed for security purposes and although they look mostly human, they have the DNA of a variety of predators spliced into them. The advocates have a constant, barely controlled lust to kill things with their bare hands (their fingers are hard and sharp and can easily rip out throats).

Then there are the Designers, Sartori’s geneticists (responsible for creating seed, landraces and advocates) and general managers. Sumedha is one of these, and I appreciated the complexity of this very alien character. As a post-human creation with carefully designed instincts, outlooks and ways of communicating Sumehda was difficult to relate to but fascinating nevertheless. He and the other Designers have faces “so perfectly proportioned it made the rest of the world feel distorted”. They communicate not only through speech but through touch, smell, and their ability to ‘read’ DNA. They have an intensely sensual relationship to each other and to Sartori, to the extent that Sumedha experiences Pihadassa’s absence as much more than just an emotional loss. Their attitude to life in general is also one of deep appreciation and fascination, an attitude that’s an essential part of their design. The creator of Sartori insisted that if life on earth were to continue in the wake of all the environmental disasters humanity has caused, then human beings not only needed to change morally or ethically, but genetically.

While I admire these things about the Designers, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that they also come across as very cruel. Although they value life deeply, individual lives mean little to them, particularly the lives of humans and the ‘lesser’ genetic creations, such as the landraces. You get the impression that Pihadassa and Sumedha often view humans as nothing more than a combination of DNA strands to be studied and if necessary, killed and dissected. Sumehda, for example, is running a series of experiments on a young girl he has genetically engineered. He does without compassion, ignoring her protests that what he does hurts her. At one point her amputates her arm (under anaesthetic, at least) as calmly as he would take her temperature. He’s also paying a group of gangsters to bring him migrants who are suffering from a disease called ‘ theTet’. He needs them for his experiments, and doesn’t bat an eyelid at the fact that these people are locked up in cages and live in filthy conditions.

This plays into the novel’s ongoing debate about genetic engineering and the use of a being like Sartori. Clearly, it presents wonderful possibilities, and might even be a necessity in an ecologically damaged world.  However, it is dangerous in the hands of someone as cold as Sumedha. Pihadassa offers a more viable alternative as she wants to return to a more natural existence in which “the mother shapes the helix, as she has always done” with only a little genetic management on her part. But it’s clear that Pihadassa is not exactly the loving ‘Corn Mother’ of the migrants’ rumours, so who then, should guide future developments? Of course the government wants to do that, but you know that’s just a struggle for power and has nothing to do with ethics.

Other issues come into play as well. Is it right to engineer beings like the landraces? They’re designed to enjoy manual labour, but are not acknowledged as individuals, as real people. The same question comes up with the advocates, who are nothing more than organic killing machines; they do not seem to want anything else but the chance to kill.

While I like the idea of a post-human future (it’s part of what makes me a sci fi fan), Seed cools my enthusiasm even as it ignites it, offering a sobering picture of the future. It’s a good book and an impressive debut that I appreciate for its ideas and the depiction of bioengineered life forms.On the downside there’s a large cast of characters, a complex plot and a lot of information about the world of the novel so reading can feel a bit of a chore at times. There’s a great deal of action and violence, but it doesn’t exactly transform this into a page-turner. However, the characters are refreshingly diverse, well-developed, and the world itself (Sartori in particular) is intriguing and relevant enough to keep me interested, if occasionally confused. Speculation about the future of human and animal life on our planet offers some much-needed food for thought regarding our lifestyles today, while revitalising the post-apocalyptic movement in fiction with some great ideas. If you’re interested in the recently defined biopunk genre or fiction that tackles issues of climate change, environmental sustainability and genetic modification, then I recommend you get a copy of Seed. 

Buy a copy of Seed at The Book Depository