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The Genesis Protocol
Dayton Ward
Phobos Impact, 376 pages

The Genesis Protocol
Dayton Ward
Dayton Ward lives in Kansas City where he works as a software developer after spending eleven years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is a Florida native and still maintains a torrid long-distance romance with his beloved Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

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A review by Kilian Melloy

Science is a method, and technology a means, and their combined application produces advanced tools for the betterment of humanity. But advances in civilized living come at a cost -- pollution, global warming, disturbed ecological systems. The hope is that science, a self-correcting discipline, will find a way to correct the abuses and imbalances we have imposed on our environment, and with the emergence of high-level biotechnology there's a glimmer of hope that we may soon have the means to fix our self-inflicted problems -- microscopic forms of genetically engineered life that devour dioxins, for example, might help us clean up lakes and oceans. Already, genetic engineering has provided crops that resist damage from the elements and from insects, and given produce a longer shelf-life. What wonders might we see in the years to come? And what horrors do we risk along the way?

Dayton Ward takes on this question in his new novel The Genesis Protocol, which envisions a different kind of "World of Tomorrow" -- a world where toxic sites are reclaimed through the use of specifically designed ecosystems. The book introduces us to the EDN Project, a living laboratory hidden in plain sight in the harsh, sterile terrain of deepest Utah -- 225 square miles of trippily colored, strangely shaped trees, vines, grasses, and animals. In essence, EDN is an alien jungle carefully planned and implemented right here on Earth by scientists who wish to build creatures capable of ingesting and metabolizing dangerous waste products of every sort, from chemical effluents to radioactive residue. The plants and animals themselves are poisonous to human beings and other "natural" life; they have to be. It is their job to make contaminated places safe for traditional homo sapiens once more, which means their life chemistry has been engineered to be compatible with highly toxic substances. In this garden, every fruit is forbidden; even venturing into the jungle means wearing special protective garments.

But every Eden boasts its cunning predator, and this man-made landscape of alien hues and ubiquitous poisons comes fully loaded with a doozy: thick-skinned, lizard-like, highly aggressive "Harbingers" that erupt from the jungle one morning to attack a small maintenance crew. When rescuers come looking for their missing personnel, they too come under attack, and fall back to a small "observation station," where they can wait out the siege and hope for rescue.

Ward knows how to jump-start action and drama, relying on the novelist's tool of the ready-made relationship between major characters to burrow quickly to the story's main conflicts. Thus, one of the trapped project personnel is Elizabeth Christopher, a senior level scientist with EDN whose father, a Utah State Senator, happens to be paying the secret facility a visit when the Harbingers strike. Senator Christopher is at EDN's headquarters at the invitation of his fellow State Senator, Jonathan Dillard, and EDN's administrator, Professor Geoffery Bates. Dillard and Bates have a whole dog and pony show planned out for the benefit of Senator Christopher on the merits of their top-secret, genetically engineered jungle. What they don't plan on telling him is how corporate and military interests have insisted that the noble cause of saving the planet's natural ecology through such unnatural means is not enough; there is a desire for military applications using EDN's work.

The business of revealing a project of such scope and delicacy to a putative political ally -- or potential adversary -- is a carefully choreographed thing, and the Harbingers throw Dillard's and Bates' schedule out of whack -- and panic Senator Christopher into the bargain. After all, that's his little girl out there about to be devoured by artificially created monsters from science's id. Enter a special unit of Marines, headed by gunnery sergeant Hassler and guided into the jungle by EDN's chief of security, Rolero -- another pair of characters with a history, since Rolero is ex-Marine herself, and she and Hassler have shared more than one mission (and passionate encounter) in the past. When the Harbingers manage to strand the rescue team, an arduous trek through the jungle's alien foliage puts everyone at risk -- prolonged exposure leads to fatal symptoms -- and even when the surviving soldiers and scientists reach safety at a research facility deep in EDN's lethal grove, the Harbingers lurk in the foliage, studying the stronghold and ready to strike at any opportunity. But the genetically engineered predators aren't the stranded group's only problem; back at EDN headquarters, security concerns prompt the project's leaders to regard Hassler, Rolero, and their charges as a risk to the project -- and to seek to contain the damage by deliberately delaying rescue until it's too late to save them. The marines in the jungle, and their cohorts back at headquarters, beg to differ. The result is a fast-moving story that pits man against man against more-than-man -- imagine Rambo taking on the toothy, acid-blooded critters from Aliens within the deeply strange environs of a highly toxic Jurassic Park.

Ward acknowledges the cultural DNA of his weird-science thriller, but only enough to set the issue out of the way; his story has enough tension in its own right to propel the plot, and the suspense and action wind tighter page by page. Stock characters are rescued by Ward's attention to their inner conflicts and the inventive ways he twists their actions into sudden and unexpected confrontations; there's a struggle between man and beast taking place everywhere in the book, not only in the hi-tech primitive surrounds of the jungle, but in each character's conscience. Ward's novel is a monster story in the best tradition of horror -- he finds ways to externalize and give shape to the darker side of the human soul, and what he reveals as he gradually approaches the question of just what kind of creatures these "Harbingers" really are provokes the contemporary version of the oldest question in literature, that of good and evil. For all our mastery over technology and our skill at using scientific methods to exercise our will over our environment, will we ever really conquer our own root nature? Or will the wizardry of technology, and the opulent abundance it allows us to enjoy as part of our modern lifestyle, be overcome by the most ancient and primitive of cunning, base, animal impulses? In short, who's really the monster here? Ward holds up the image of the provocatively named Harbingers to let us see that, really, they are nothing other than a slightly blurred mirror to ourselves -- because we have made them in our own image.

Copyright © 2006 Kilian Melloy

Kilian Melloy is the Editor at Large for wigglefish zine, and a columnist and reviewer for Hoping to make a living at this some day, for the moment Kilian is thrilled just to be talking to the creative, intriguing people he has the chance to interview for these and other web publications.

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