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Accidental Creatures
Anne Harris
Tor Books, 288 pages

Accidental Creatures
Anne Harris
Anne Harris' other novel is The Nature of Smoke (1996) also from Tor. Her short fiction includes "Chango is a Dog" and "The House."

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SF Site Review: Accidental Creatures

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A review by Donna McMahon

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Long time SF fans like myself will probably have difficulty deciding what to make of Accidental Creatures -- a book that is SF but doesn't feel much like SF. I finally decided that this novel is two books pasted together. One is a traditional SF story which paints a vivid portrait of future Detroit from the sometimes gut-wrenching perspective of working class life on the bottom rungs of the biotech industry. The other is a symbolic goddess-tinged mainstream style novel where women wielding 'good' biological technology battle 'bad' aggressive/male/metal-tech dominance.

Chango survives on the fringes of society, picking up odd jobs and scamming. She isn't sure where to go with her life and she's still haunted by the suspicious death of her older sister Ada, who was trying to organize a union at GeneSys. Most vat divers die young from cumulative exposure to the poisonous growth medium they work in, but Ada died after her diving suit "accidentally" ruptured on the job.

However, it isn't until Chango befriends Helix, a strange genetically mutated woman who actually enjoys the smell of biopolymer growth fluid, that new union troubles erupt and Chango begins uncovering the truth behind her sister's death. And Helix's desperate search for her own identity triggers events which will forever change GeneSys, and revolutionize human technology.

This novel features strong, believable people, including delightful minor characters such as Hyper, a computer geek who builds strange robots (e.g. Robo Mime, a go-cart-mounted interactive machine which follows people around and imitates them).

I was especially impressed by Anne Harris's gritty and convincing depiction of a working class union -- social and political ground that most SF writers and fans avoid. And this is where some of the internal contradictions of Accidental Creatures become evident. Harris's working class characters are very real people; her biotech humans, on the other hand, are improbable creatures, apparently happy to spend their lives swimming around in a vat tending biopolymer crops.

When I considered Harris's book in terms of Chango's story versus Helix's story, I noticed that most of the details of Chango's world were convincing. (Well, OK, I can think of better, faster, far less dangerous ways to clean a tank than sending divers in, but I'll let that one go). I particularly liked Harris's portrait of future Detroit with maglev highways overtaking the internal combustion infrastructure that built the city.

But Helix's story is full of things that make no sense at all in an SF context. For instance, Helix has four fully functioning arms. This is a plot device which gives her an embarrassing deformity to hide under a baggy raincoat, but it's wildly unlikely from any scientific standpoint. And the details of Helix's birth and upbringing go past technically improbable and into the realm of silly. No doubt there is all sorts of nice symbolism and imagery there, but a successful SF novel must work on the surface level first.

This is a hard book to sum up. My first reading left me very unsatisfied, but a re-read reminded me of its many strong points. Harris is a talented writer who brings a fresh perspective to her SF, but I'm guessing that Tor anticipates more interest from artsy mainstream readers than traditional SF fans.

Copyright © 2002 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at http://www.donna-mcmahon.com/.


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