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Inherit the Earth by Brian Stableford
(Tor, $6.99, 320 pages, paperback; published July 1999; first published 1998.)

This is a very odd book, and a very good one. Its oddity lies in its multitude of internal contradictions; central among these are, first, its status as an intrigue- and action-filled thriller which may have virtually no plot to speak of, and, second, the related paradox that, with a backdrop of mean streets and cynical criminality, Inherit the Earth nonetheless is formal, meditative, a feast of often striking intellectual speculation. The novel's excellence is the product of these dissonances: it reflects much of Stableford's characteristic depth of thought, but gives that depth a comparatively relaxed, and thus highly entertaining, gloss. This is one of Stableford's finest works: as skilfully as he has ever done, he weaves his profoundest arguments so intrinsically into his tale that they become the tale itself.

This strength may result from the peculiar circumstances that have governed the publication of much of Stableford's prolific output of SF. His natural manner has always seemed to be derived from the scientific romances of the late Victorian era and the early Twentieth Century, of which he is an extremely knowledgeable scholar; this predisposes him to a distanced narrative style, one which delivers considered commentary on the evolutionary and cosmic implications of scientific discovery in the form of contemplative description and dialogue, with little concern for rapid movements of plotting. But the pressures of the market demand that plot takes precedence, and so Stableford must compromise...

Such compromise has been difficult and uneven; whenever Stableford contrives a formula that suits the American market, he alienates his British one; and vice versa. Thus, his metaphysical steampunk magnum opus of the early Nineties, the trilogy beginning with The Werewolves of London, suffered strange neglect from his UK publishers, who, when issuing the final volume, The Carnival of Destruction, seemed chiefly interested in leaving everyone unaware of the fact that the book existed. The planetary-romance "Genesys" series, which followed, did well enough in Britain, but hasn't appeared in the USA. A particularly acute neo-Wellsian novel, The Hunger and Ecstasy of Vampires (1996), found a home only with a small press in California. And now a highly promising future history, opening with Inherit the Earth and continuing with Architects of Emortality (1999), is a prominent fixture of Tor's American hardcover and paperback lists, but is without a niche in Stableford's home country. The last fact is unfortunate; the right creative compromise has now been struck.

The late Twenty Second Century set out in Inherit the Earth shares the bio- and nanotechnological emphasis of so much of Stableford's previous fiction. Some details and names are carried over from The Third Millennium (1985), a futurological narrative co-authored by David Langford; other concepts are familiar from the short stories in Sexual Chemistry (1991) and from major novellas written for US magazines in the mid-1990s, among them "Inherit the Earth" (1995), which Stableford now expands. After chronic biological plagues and Earth's environmental near-collapse, a New Utopia has been engineered. People can no longer reproduce naturally; artificial wombs have taken over, and humans, freed from the imminent menace of demographic catastrophe, can concentrate on perfecting their lives, augmenting their bodies with Internal Technology that bolsters endurance and resilience, and seeking a means to physical immortality (which Stableford, for reasons not set out in this book, qualifies as "emortality"). The question is how these posthuman goals are to be achieved, to whose ultimate profit and benefit. Who shall inherit the Earth?

The planet is effectively owned by a massive, and essentially conservative, corporate cartel, which caters to a consumer market demanding bodily enhancement and the escapist pleasures of VEs (Virtual Environments). Cultural rebels and secretive scientists are the cartel's only authentic challengers; they desire a more dynamic and pluralistic world order. The novel's protagonist, Damon Hart, is a cultural rebel in his capacities of retired streetfighter and freelance VE designer; he is also the son of one of the most significant scientific conspirators. He inevitably becomes the focal point of a bizarre conflict between powerful interest groups, a battle waged by means of abduction and astonishingly convoluted campaigns of veiled intimidation and ingenious misinformation. Damon, resolutely independent, tries to unravel ever-burgeoning enigmas by his own efforts and those of a streetwise ally; but Stableford very ably sustains a profound cognitive suspense until the end, at times leaving the reader suspecting that the plot is a sham built purely from the illusion of danger, a sham artfully cloaking the momentous truths that genuinely matter. Inherit the Earth's action is hilariously circular, a totally absorbing and wilfully frustrating dance around the complex issues of human destiny.

The novel demands constant guesswork and revision of guesswork, both as to the agencies behind specific events and the future-historical implications of those events. Because of this, Stableford satisfies his market: he has produced a thoroughly stimulating intellectual thriller, devoid of the static and wooden quality that has marred much of his work in the past, rich with exciting and mystifying incident. But he has kept his "higher" purpose in view, that of debating his lasting concerns: the promise of biotechnology and genetic engineering; the spirit in which scientific inquiry should be pursued; the power of Reason; the relative merits of caution and bold innovation in a technological age. When the concluding chapters deliver their due load of revelation, it becomes evident that every previous helter-skelter episode has been a contribution to those debates; all excesses of kinetic effort have abetted an intriguing manifesto.

Architects of Emortality follows. There is genius here. And more to come.

Review by Nick Gevers.
More of Nick's reviews are online at Parsec.

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© Nick Gevers 20 November 1999