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Clade coverA long-standing debate among science fiction writers is just where the line falls between hard and soft science; or, among the true snobs, between real science fiction and that fuzzy stuff.

Unfortunately, real science fiction is confined to a limited set of disciplines, and those disciplines are getting harder to use as sources for stories. For some, such as physics, the actual research is resulting in speculation so wacky that to base a novel on it might lose readers. For others, such as weird alien biologies and different planetary environments, the subject is so tried and true that finding fresh new takes on them is becoming increasingly difficult.

Biotech is a fairly recent and welcome addition to the set. It is the more welcome right now because it's still new enough that there's no need to strain for a sense of wonder, but it's been around long enough that its "gosh wow" science can work in service to the story and the characters that people it. Clade, a first novel by Mark Budz, demonstrates biotech's story potentials admirably.

Rigo lives in a San Francisco Bay Area that has been radically changed by ecological catastrophe—a die-off of massive proportions has ravaged the ecosystem and destabilized the climate.

Humanity's response: create more biomass, "engineering" into it useful traits that enable air and water purification, UV absorption, and bioremediation of remaining wastes. The raw material is plant-based; few animals except humans remain. Huge areas of land are still toxic and the ocean is ten meters higher than it used to be. But biotech has, essentially, saved humanity.

Saved humanity, not changed it.

The gengineered biomass used to bolster a shaky environment also makes one hell of a chemical delivery system. There are still rich people and poor people, and the rich people realize that this delivery system can also work in their defense. They tweak their "ecotectures" to emit customized cocktails of pherions, physiologically active proteins with effects that run the gamut from making a passerby pee his pants to causing serious neurological damage. To live safely in such a neighborhood, one must be "claded" for it—be dosed with the antifers that neutralize such pherions.

This gives new meaning to the saying, "A place for everything, and everything in its place." To be more precise, the rich in their protected enclaves, and the poor in their chemical cages.

Rigo is trying to escape from his own cage—a poor Latino neighborhood in South San Jose—in a socially acceptable manner. He has worked hard, kept his head down, and secured a job with a future in Noogenics, which is a greenhouse unlike the one where your mother bought her roses; it's more of a fabrication plant, turning out cellulose to spec. Rigo is good at his job, he's got a girlfriend, Anthea, whom he loves and who loves him, and what seems like a wonderful opportunity to look good in front of the big bosses—an invitation to help set up the first ecotecture designed for the purpose of colonizing another world.

The offer, of course, is not what it seems, and the trip to the comet Tiresias goes horribly wrong. Rigo must give up his dream of a safe life and accept the responsibility of living an honorable one.

What this has to do with Ibrahim, a dying boy off the streets whom Anthea is counseling, a strange and very rich woman named Dorit who is one of the comet's colonists but who seems to have developed an inexplicable interest in Rigo, and Anthea's own desperately guarded secrets provides the action. But the book's heart beats with age-old questions of loyalty and betrayal, Information-Age questions of community and choice, and ageless questions of what makes a family.

Sure, Clade has bitchin' new biotech. Sure, Clade has cool ideas and neat extrapolations and even funky AIs (called IAs, or Information Agents). But Clade also has mothers who love their children, brothers who stand up for each other, decent people trying to do the right thing, and a man and a woman who refuse to let this strange new world change what is most basic and human about them—their love and respect for each other.

Lori Ann White likes to write about mind-bending stuff, whether real or imaginary. Her fiction has appeared in Asimov's, Analog, Polyphony 3, and various other publications. Her current day job is as a science writer for the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, where "Unique Hazards May Exist." Obviously, she has died and gone to heaven.
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24 Feb 2020

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