Tor, 1999, 319pp, $24.95
reviewed in Vector 209, January-February 2000
There is something strange and sad here. A sickness, a canker, seems to have rooted somewhere and needs to be excised. What is wrong? This is a work of daring and powerful science fiction by one of the best British writers working in the field today. A cause for celebration? Yet this book is published in America, and there is so far no indication that either this novel or its immediate predecessor, Inherit The Earth, will receive British publication. Why this might be so I would hesitate to guess, but that it is a sorry state of affairs is undeniable.
Stableford, I will admit, is not always an easy writer. He seems to create his characters from the outside, so that while you have no problem observing their actions, hearing their particular voice, it is difficult if not impossible to penetrate below this surface. Because the author is so free with biological detail you have no doubt that beneath their flesh his characters have bones and viscera but you are never entirely sure if they have what we might call a soul. One doesn’t always warm to Stableford’s characters. But in a genre whose greatest works are often noted for their paucity of characterisation, Stableford’s work positively shines.
He is also a didactic writer, more likely to explain what is going on with technical detail than to show it with dramatic action. But in a future as fully and as vividly realised as this, as complex in its structure, such explanation is vital if we are to have any hope of understanding the world, and hence of following what is going on. And surely science fiction readers are not put off by the occasional info dump?
These are, I stress, minor points, certainly within the context of science fiction. Balanced against them, the strengths of this book are legion. The novel is an expansion of his story ‘Fleurs du Mal’, set several centuries hence when nanotechnology has reached the limit of how far it can extend human life, but just as a new realisation of mortality touches the world’s aged population a new promise of ‘emortality’ is beginning to stir. Stableford captures the emotional balance of this pivotal moment superbly, with the stew of despair and resignation, hope and jealousy it brings in its wake. And in this dramatic moment, a group of old men nearing the ends of their nano-prolonged lives are being murdered, and murdered in a very peculiar way, their flesh eaten by genetically engineered flowers.
Police sergeant Charlotte Holmes (her superior is Watson) finds herself in the company of aesthete and flower designed Oscar Wilde and one of the new ‘emortals’ in the search for the perpetrator. The identity of the villain is soon known – Rappaccini, who also goes by the name of Gustave Moreau – but the real mystery lies in why, and how Rappaccini orchestrates the chase. As the names suggest (and at times Stableford wears his learning none too lightly) the secret lies in 19th century literature as much as in the genetically engineered world of the story. Stableford does an excellent job of sustaining the mystery, and using it as a means of revealing his world.
The biggest mystery remains, however, why this gripping story is not being published in Britain.