Sick, cruel worlds

coping with tropes

Science Fiction

Books

April 03, 2005|By Gerald Jonas | Gerald Jonas,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Behemoth: Seppuku

By Peter Watts. Tor/Tom Doherty. 304 pages. $24.95.

With Behemoth: Seppuku, Peter Watts has completed a trilogy that began in 1999 with Starfish. I'm happy to report that the wait was well worth it. In Starfish and its sequel, Maelstrom, Watts, a marine biologist, envisaged a world threatened by "an apocalyptic microbe ... from the deep sea." The microbe was intentionally spread by a much abused individual named Lenie Clarke, one of several psychotic personalities who were altered, physically and psychologically, by corporations intent on maintaining a steady supply of electrical power. While Clarke's desire for revenge is understandable, the consequences are horrendous - hundreds of millions died in North America, and as-yet-uncontaminated regions elsewhere imposed a pitiless quarantine on the survivors in an attempt to contain the infection. Behemoth picks up the story as a repentant Clarke returns to North America from an undersea sanctuary in hopes of saving a remnant of humanity from extinction. Teamed with another psychotic who was molded into an assassin by the all-powerful corporations, Clarke wanders a ravaged landscape, only to discover that someone is intentionally thwarting attempts to effect a cure. This bare-bones synopsis cannot convey the complex moral calculus that Watts embodies in his ambitious tale of conscience deferred. Everyone involved in the harrowing denouement is both wounded and culpable. Even readers may feel complicit when they find themselves sympathizing with characters responsible for as many as a billion deaths.

Crache

By Mark Budz. Spectra/Bantam. 384 pages. $6.99 (paper).Mark Budz's Crache is set in the same elaborately detailed near-future as his previous novel, Clade (2003). An "ecocaust" resulting from "overheating, overpopulation and overeverything" has led to billions of deaths and "the loss of 98 percent of the world's preecocaust species." The new society built on the ruins of the old is organized around "clades," rigid social groupings defined by shared biochemical markers called pherions. Stray into another clade's turf and, unless you have been doped with the right "antiphers," you will fall victim "to any number of embarrassing and potentially fatal physical discomforts." In Crache, Budz explores the tendency of this tightly controlled system to break down, with devastating consequences for ordinary people trying to live as best as they can under the new rules. Imagine a collaboration between John Steinbeck and Michael Crichton, written in the overheated style of William Gibson's Neuromancer. The plot starts from the premise that electronic and biological information can intermingle in ways that erase the distinction between a computer virus and organic pathogens. Unfortunately, any suspense generated by the struggle to save the solar system from a new kind of plague soon dissipates amid the torrents of verbiage necessary to explain what is happening.

Natural History

By Justina Robson. Spectra/Bantam. 336 pages. $13 (paper).Justina Robson's Natural History unfolds against a background even more complicated than that of Crache. But whereas Budz's characters seem overwhelmed by their cruel world, Robson's tackle far more bizarre challenges with a kind of reckless aplomb. Her book belongs to a relatively recent subgenre called the New Space Opera, which seeks to bring stylistic and psychological sophistication to the rousing tropes of interstellar exploration and confrontation. Sometime in the 26th century, the drive to conquer space has led to the birthing of a new kind of human being, a seamless union of flesh and machine. Known as the Forged, these chimerical creatures range from interplanetary cargo carriers more than half a mile long to tiny interstellar voyagers able to travel at near-light speeds. When the Forged begin to question their programmed obedience to the Unevolved - their disdainful term for the ordinary humans who created them - the political, economic and social structure of the solar system totters. Triggering the crisis is the discovery by Voyager Lonestar Isol of a distant Earthlike planet that could serve as a new home for the Forged. This world seems uninhabited, but it yields alien artifacts that appear to function like a genie's lamp - granting virtually any wish of the possessor. Robson deftly cites the latest implausibilities of string-theory physics, but she does not dwell on explanations. She is more interested in plumbing the reactions of various Forged and Unevolved creatures to the temptations of unlimited power.

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