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by Shaun Jeffrey

(The Invisible College Press, $14.95, 292 pages, signed large format paperback, published 2003, received 22 May 2003.)


[Editor's note: in order to fully explore this novel, the review does contain some plot spoilers...]




Hypothetical situation -- you're a brilliant but unethical biochemist. You've parsed the human genome, and in doing so have devised cures for every cover scanknown disease. Do you:

a) Accept a laboratory and a seven-figure salary from a multinational pharmaceutical company, refine your vaccines, and spend the rest of your days selling your medicines to Africans at inflated prices?


b) Found a government conspiracy, commandeer a sleepy village in Staffordshire, fence it in, shroud it in synthetic fog, post armed guards at the perimeter, supply the locals with food impregnated with rough-and-ready garden-shed variants of your vaccines, then sit back and gawp at the implausibly freakish side effects?

Evilution takes this second scenario as its central premise.

Such a set-up might not have been out of place in a 1970s HTV children's serial; debut author Shaun Jeffrey, however, uses it as the basis for a contemporary adult horror novel. The difference is that Evilution contains a lot more swearing and does not feature a central cast of twelve-year-olds, although the characterisation of the three teenagers in the novel -- stated ages fifteen, fifteen and nineteen -- is a little misleading in this respect.

The protagonist is Chase Black, a young woman down on her luck. She has no job, she lives in an unsavoury suburb, and her boyfriend -- who was either a bastard or an angel, depending on which backstory you believe -- ran out on her four months earlier. Then, one day, she receives a letter telling her she's won a competition she never entered. The prize is a house in a sleepy village in Staffordshire. This in itself may not scream "Evil government conspiracy!", but the villains aren't exactly subtle: the return address on the letter is "P.O. Box 666", for goodness' sake; and when a car turns up the next day to drive Chase to her new home, the conspirators have made sure their most disfigured, most wantonly sinister member is at the wheel. Chase isn't picky, though. She's not very perceptive, either. Off she goes with her friend Jane in tow. Jane, incidentally, is the "wisecracking sidekick", and she cracks as wise as your Dad at a school disco. Chase isn't the least bit perturbed by the fact that her new neighbours are a bunch of knife-wielding psychopaths (one of the side effects of the contaminated food, you see). Only when Jane disappears does Chase start to worry, and by then it is, of course, far too late.

Evilution is a fairly open diatribe against genetic modification, so some awareness of the issues involved wouldn't have gone amiss. Yet there's nary a mention in Evilution of the private sector, the biochemical companies that are actually responsible for so-called "Frankenstein foods". Instead Jeffrey focuses his story on a shadowy government conspiracy headed by a chatty, bearded mastermind and a sadistic henchman. Not exactly "wheels within wheels", but rather a case of clichés within clichés. Factual research generally seems to have been kept to a minimum. It's obvious Jeffrey's looked up Huntington's disease in an encyclopaedia, because one character recites a verbatim list of symptoms; but he appears to have narcolepsy and catatonia mixed up, and when it comes to matters biochemical the author lapses into embarrassing technobabble. Everything he knows about GM, he seems to have learned from the tabloid press. Evilution is very much the sort of book I can imagine Disgusted from Norfolk writing in between letters to the Daily Mail. There are, let's not deny, serious issues with genetically modified foods, issues that need to be discussed, but I doubt Evilution is going to find its way to the front lines of the GM debate.

The writing doesn't make it any easier to read this stuff. Awkward similes abundantly litter the text, like rancid plums in a 292-page plum duff. Jeffrey is something of a punctuation offender too -- he seems none too clear on the apostrophe's uses (or should that be "the apostrophes use's"?). Has he really got the hang of question marks? And the exclamation marks! The terrible exclamation marks! Now, I'll concede the possibility that these abuses of punctuation could have been introduced by a wayward editor, but blame for the weak story, hackneyed characters and clumsy prose must surely rest with the author.

Evilution horrified me all right, but not in a good way. All this book has left me with is the intriguing image of squirrels that sunbathe, and a fifteen dollar firelighter.

Review by John Toon.

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