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Written in Blood

by Chris Lawson

(MirrorDanse Books, Australia, AU$18.95, 156 pages, paperback; August 2003; ISBN 0958658390.))

Review by Robert Cook

cover scanWritten in Blood is the debut collection of Australian writer Chris Lawson, but it would be untrue to say, in the standard review-of-a-debut-collection manner, that he is a promising new writer. His first professional sale was in 1998, and he had stories and reviews published prior to that, so 'new' he is not. And he is way beyond promising.

Still, as official beginnings go, Written in Blood shows how good Lawson is at beginnings. 'Chinese Rooms' invites us to

Imagine a room. Any room. It can have a window and a desk, if you like, but none of the paraphernalia is important. What is important is that the room contains a letterbox, a book and a man.

A swift, complex parable, 'Chinese Rooms' mixes John Searle, Roger Penrose, organised crime, artificial intelligence, psychopathology, and the quiet rages of personal grief, treating each ingredient with a deep and playful intelligence. 'Unborn Again' starts with a saliva-inducing recipe for lamb's brains and ends with a horrific realisation about that same recipe that does the exact opposite (Lawson, it should be noted, is equally good at endings). In between there is black net research, Chinese human rights abuse, exquisitely restrained descriptions of the bodily effects of degenerative disease, and the ghost of John Stuart Mill. 'Written In Blood' (a widely anthologised story) is a provocative, moving, and ultimately deeply unnerving tale of faith and science and their fatal complements.

All six stories are near-future SF dramas that share an abiding sense of controlled visceral and ethical rage at, and simultaneously a deep empathy for, both the credulity and inventiveness of human beings in the face of an implacably rational (and therefore often deeply irrational) world, filled with terror and wonder in equal measure.

The other half of the book is made up of six non-fiction pieces: five essays excerpted from Lawson's Frankenstein Journal and an interview by fellow Australian genre writer Simon Brown. Lawson, a family doctor in real life, is a great advocate of science and the scientific method, as these essays show. He is also a great debunker and is brutal in his condemnations of those who would use science to further unscientific and unethical ends. The standout 'Evolutionary Pressure on Creationists' is worth the price of admission alone, even without the stories. It is a blistering and witty exposé of the complete absence of anything remotely resembling actual science in the arguments of Intelligent Design theorists, and was written well before the US judicial system finally got its teeth out of the glass.

Lawson's work is predominantly concerned with the fact that science and technology are, in and of themselves, value neutral, and that it is only what we do with them that makes them beneficial or blighting. As he says in the interview, 'Blind obedience to someone in a white lab coat is just as dangerous as blind obedience to a man in a snappy fascist uniform.' As the protagonist of 'Written in Blood' says at the end of that near-perfect story, paraphrasing Einstein:

The solution lies in the heart of humankind.
I whisper it to my children every night.

Lawson's finely-balanced ambivalence, his acute perceptions of the human factor, his detailed attention to the reality of consequences, and his sharp and understated characterisation, particularly of female characters, mark his writing as having considerable literary weight. And, ultimately, he is a staggeringly persistent writer of bloody good English sentences, in a plain and lucid style reminiscent of Orwell and Le Guin.

Written in Blood is well worth getting hold of. It has many and varied strengths, few and only interesting flaws, and is an excellent example of what Australian genre writing is producing at the moment. It is also a beautifully produced artefact, crisp, glossy, and with some fabulous cover art courtesy of Shaun Tan.

MirrorDanse Books do international mail order.

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