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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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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Chris Donner

Grow med -- growth medium -- shimmers rich and fertile in the vats that give the Vattown neighbourhood of Detroit its name. In the thick, deadly depths swim vatdivers, heavily suited to protect their skin from contact with the nutrient-rich liquid that threatens their lives as it provides their living. Direct contact with grow med results in vatsickness, a sort of accelerated cancer in which the body begins growing tumours and abscesses at a fantastic rate, until the person affected becomes an unrecognizable shape of sores and growths and finally dies.

But unemployment is at about 50%, and GeneSys needs divers to keep the grow med clean and to harvest the biopolymers that are used to make everything from fabrics to paint to siding. So people continue to dive.

With frank brush strokes and heavy grey pigment, Anne Harris paints a riveting picture of Vattown and its inhabitants in her second book for Tor, Accidental Creatures. In this decaying industrial section of the future Detroit, there is a stark line separating the haves from the have-nots, and the vatdivers who risk their lives by day and find pleasure in doing "Blast" at night are barely considered human even in their own eyes.

Helix is one of the haves, at least at first. She is the adopted daughter of Dr. Hector Martin, the inventor and creator of the multi-processor brains that revolutionized computing and technology. But Helix has always felt out of place due to her deformities. She is a "sport" -- a biological child of divers from the days before GeneSys required all vatdivers to be sterilized. Her deformities include vampire-like teeth, four arms, and raw, chafed skin.

When Helix runs away from Hector Martin, feeling the need to be on her own, she is plunged into the bleak life of Vattown, but even there she finds no welcome. With the inexplicable prejudice born of frustration and endless poverty, the vatdivers hate sports more than themselves. Sports represent the fate that awaits them all.

Eventually, almost inevitably, Helix enters the world of the vats, and her reaction is completely unexpected. Where others find the yeasty fumes of the vats thick and poisonous -- one of the characters compares it to "smelling your death" -- she breathes them in lustily. She longs to dive in the deadly grow med and feel it against her skin. She has finally found a place where she feels at home.

As Helix gradually discovers who and what she really is, the city of Vattown is thrown into turmoil. Vatdivers see her as a threat to their existence, while the higher-ups in GeneSys are only interested in her as a potential money-maker and tool. But Helix is no Blast-addicted vatdiver afraid and beaten down over years and years. She's not even sure if she's human.

And while her friend Chango's refusal to dive represents a form of protest against GeneSys, Helix takes a much stronger stance. She will live in the poisonous vats as she wants to, as she is supposed to, or she will die.

Anne Harris has created a powerful and believable story with Accidental Creatures. Her ability with the language is obvious, and she quickly creates interesting characters and a riveting plot, all while taking a realistic look at what dangers the future may hold.

Like Dr. Hector Martin, Anne Harris is a creator of resource and imagination. Many of the details of the world she creates are simply taken for granted and remain unobtrusively in the background, but they seem to be a frighteningly possible future for our day and age, where the distance between the corporate conglomerates and the little guy who works for them continues to increase geometrically.

The bleak reality of survival in Vattown is crushing, but there is hope here as well. Helix and her ilk represent a "brave new world" the likes of which writers such as Huxley and Orwell may not have envisioned. Mutation as a form of protest proves more effective in this story than unions and organization, even more effective than simply dropping out. Biology is a stronger force than sociology -- perhaps it always has been -- and what humanity cannot control it might well succumb to.

By the end of Accidental Creatures, you'll almost hope for that to be true.

Copyright © 1998 by Chris Donner

Chris Donner is a freelance writer and magazine editor living in Manhattan and working in Connecticut. He will read almost anything once, as it makes the train ride go faster. He is currently writing a screenplay, a novel, several short stories, a collection of poems, and a letter to his mother. The letter will probably be done first.

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