I generally like cyberpunk, but I have one fundamental problem with it: it is usually so unremittingly grim. So when The Nature of Smoke, Anne Harris' first novel, was published a few years ago, I was delighted to discover that it was optimistic. Yes, the protagonists do battle with a faceless evil corporation and lose. Yes, the most sympathetic character is killed senselessly. But in the end, it manages to recapture the traditional hopefulness of science fiction: the belief that science may be the source of the problem, but it can also be the foundation of the solution. So, when Accidental Creatures appeared in paperback in October, I rushed to grab a copy. It's not that I don't like hardcover books, but even a trade paperback can be inconvenient to read in bed.
Every time you start reading a novel, you suffer the temptation to analyze when you should be experiencing, or at least I do. So, what is Accidental Creatures? It is cyberpunk. It's also an intrigue, a romance, and a labor movement saga. Harris draws together three coming-of-age stories, the obligatory evil corporation, bizarre science, and a tribute to the Arsenal of Democracy -- but not in any way you could anticipate. Like a good mystery writer, she postpones letting us understand what is really going on for as long as she can. It isn't until the middle of the book that I figured out where we really were, and I still wasn't sure where we were going.
We are in Detroit, sometime in the 21st century. The automobile industry is gone, we aren't sure where, and the vacuum has been filled by GeneSys, the world's leading producer of biopolymers. Taking advantage of the traditional Detroit workforce -- tough, somewhat desperate, willing to take on the dirtiest jobs -- GeneSys moves all production into the old Poletown plant, now know as Vattown. Here, biopolymers are grown to meet the material needs of America and the world: insulation sheeting, fashion fabrics, construction material. . . The vat divers are the elite and the exploited of this dangerous business. Risking a slow and painful death, they don protective gear and work inside the growth vats, surrounded by deadly growth medium.
The first coming-of-age story focuses on Chango Chichelski, would-be vat diver, whose sister Ada was a leader of the vat divers' labor movement. After leading a successful strike, Ada was killed by GeneSys treachery. Her dive suit was sabotaged, letting her be poisoned by growth medium. The company blamed it on carelessness because she was high on "blast," the divers' drug of choice.
A child of vat divers, Chango bears signs of a minor mutation and is forbidden a career in the vats. Refusing the opportunity to become a part of GeneSys administration, she exists on the fringes of Vattown society, "scavenging, repairing automobiles, cutting lawns, cleaning houses, scanning cash cards. She lived anyplace she could park her car or bum a floor for the night . . . obscure in her sister's shadow." Underneath a façade of casual pleasure, she still seeks to vindicate her sister's memory.
Then comes Helix, a not so minor mutation. Harris likes to use the fine old Victorian word "sport" for major mutations, as if we were talking about racehorses or roses. One of my first reactions to Helix was that it isn't likely that chemical induced mutation could produce a fully functional, four-armed woman. Most mutations are not viable, and successful mutations are almost always incremental, not revolutionary. Harris conceals the truth behind this for as long as she can.
Finally, there is Hector Martin. Since Hector is a middle-aged PhD working for GeneSys as a Genetic Engineer, you might not think of him as "coming of age." Trust me, his emotional development was arrested somewhere in adolescence (or graduate school at the latest). He came to GeneSys from a smaller company looking for deep pockets to fund the work of his dreams, but he chafes under the corporate bureaucracy and frequently regrets his decision. Now, he is conducting the greatest work of his life and he is afraid to show it to his employers. At the same time he is trying to come to terms with himself and the world he lives in.
Helix and Hector's stories are linked from the start. Helix has lived in seclusion as Hector's adopted daughter for many years. Her only contact with others comes in phone conversations with the mysterious Night Hag. She has vivid memories of how cruel other children were about her deformities and she is afraid to go among people. Yet, she is curious about the world outside and eventually has to explore it. When she finally ventures forth, she triggers a series of events that change the world.
Almost immediately, she runs afoul of a mugger. In defending herself, she has to reveal her abnormalities and also suffers a knife wound. This event links her story to Chango's. It is Chango who rescues her and hides her in the marginal society of Vattown. With the good heart of those who have nothing, Chango risks everything to help a fugitive. Somewhere in here, they fall in love and eventually back out of love.
Against everyone's advice, Helix insists on trying her four hands at vat diving and succeeds in starting a riot. Helix and Chango embark on an Odyssean journey through the netherworld of Detroit, pursued by the minions of GeneSys. Along the way, they meet with friends and enemies (sometimes we have difficulty telling them apart), heroes and traitors, publicans and thieves.
One of the more interesting of these is Orielle, one of the publicans, a mutant blast dealer, "upwards of seven feet tall, her hair -- pure white and fine as spun glass -- skin not so much white as transparent. She looked blue." Orielle offers Helix some important advice: "If you're going to be a freak, you might as well be a freak show." Helix doesn't have a lot of choice.
Meanwhile, we learn more of Hector's troubles. He set out to make the world a better place, but his greatest research has gone completely out of his control. His bosses are pressing him for promised improvements in production efficiency. If he lets them find out that he has lost control, they will shut him down. He can't permit this, nor can he regain control of the project. He fights back with his guile and the importance of his project. Eventually, Helix returns to him with Chango, and they join his struggle.
Of course, we eventually come to the confrontation with GeneSys. Ada's memory is redeemed, the identity of the Night Hag is revealed, and Chango's world changes forever. Some will think that it changes for the better. Others will wonder. On the way, we get to enjoy Harris' fast paced narrative, literate dialogue, and telling analysis of the dangers of genetic manipulation, as well as her obvious love for the city that she and I call home.
This is a better book than The Nature of Smoke, which was itself a good first novel. I hope that we can look forward to a series of books that entertain us while calling our attention to the dangers inherent in some scientific advances.
Accidental Creatures won the 1999 Spectrum Award for best science fiction, fantasy or horror novel.
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