(Simon & Schuster, £12.99, 521 pages, hardback, published 2 February 2004; ISBN 0-7432-3885-0.)
Paul McAuley's near-future thriller White Devils builds upon the foundations of the past while looking boldly forward.
Its African setting and its journey towards the secret headquarters of a military commander gone "native" overtly reference Heart of Darkness. Its obsessed and perhaps insane geneticists hark back to Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein and Wells's Dr. Moreau. McAuley's biopunks, genetic hackers who work both within and outside the global corporate marketplace and who proudly display their (often illegal) cutting-edge body modifications, are obvious descendants of the cyberpunks.
While investigating a mysterious massacre in the Congo, Nicholas Hyde, a man of many secrets, sees a group of colleagues savagely murdered by "white devils" -- small, ferocious, nearly unkillable primates. Obligate, a cult-like conservationist corporation that owns the country, goes to desperate lengths to cover up the existence of these genetic monsters, while Hyde wants to speak for the dead and dig up the truth behind the white devils' creation.
McAuley's novel occurs in a future recovering warily from various plagues and environmental catastrophes. Genetic engineering is the science du jour, and people are largely defined by their relation to it -- anarchist biopunk, corporate owner of copyrighted DNA, researcher, "green" terrorist.
Unfortunately, although White Devils is indeed fascinating and intriguing, McAuley, somewhat clumsily and manipulatively, telegraphs several of the novel's supposed surprises while hiding revelations from readers even after the protagonists uncover them.
This book -- a well-informed and engaged confluence of biology, genetics, racial politics, globalization economics, and environmental issues -- comes close to being a radical work, but it still espouses the anthropocentric and mechanistic worldview at the root of the problems it decries. Thus, the novel's ethical core is confused and muddled, much to its detriment.
White Devils is nevertheless a thought-provoking page-turner, which, sadly, doesn't quite fulfill its considerable ambitions.
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© Claude Lalumière 20 March 2004, 4 September 2004