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The Changeling Plague
Syne Mitchell
Roc Books, 336 pages

The Changeling Plague
Syne Mitchell
Syne Mitchell started college when she was 13, and graduated summa cum laude at age 15 with a B.S. in Business Administration. She then went on to major in physics in graduate school at Florida State University. She works as a programmer-writer at Microsoft writing developer documentation. She is married to SF writer Eric Nylund.

Syne Mitchell Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Technogenesis
SF Site Review: The Changeling Plague
SF Site Review: Murphy's Gambit

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

Geoffery Allan is a young man with everything to live for, but he's dying of cystic fibrosis. With nothing to lose and a huge fortune at his disposal, he bribes a genetic researcher to engineer an illegal cure for him -- a viral treatment that will repair his defective DNA at the cellular level.

It works, but instead of rewriting his DNA and then stopping, it keeps rewriting. And the virus is highly contagious. Soon everyone Geoffery's been in contact with is suffering from rare diseases and deformities -- and the plague is spreading at terrifying speed.

This deadly virus must be stopped at all costs before it kills everyone on Earth. So Dr. Lillith Watkins, a conventional middle-aged researcher, finds herself making a secret alliance with a renegade hacker who has a disturbing obsession and his own agenda.

This is a good, gripping start for what is essentially a racing-the-clock disaster novel with a hard SF foundation. Unfortunately, the novel loses steam part-way and events become more and more far-fetched, leading to an unsatisfying finish.

The fundamental problem with The Changeling Plague is that none of its three viewpoint characters is very compelling. It's oddly difficult to empathize with Geoffery, a bland rich white kid, and equally hard to feel much for Dr. Watkins, whose complete obtuseness about politics gets more annoying as the novel goes on. And the hacker Idaho -- while interesting -- is just too weird to share his headspace for very many pages.

The secondary characters are good, though. Syne Mitchell has a better feel for counter culture than mainstream, and does a great job with Idaho's network of hacker geeks, goths, and extreme body piercers, (especially Idaho's girlfriend).

Their social/political context is also well drawn, and very timely. With the United States seething in post 9/11 paranoia, it's no stretch to imagine the government dealing with plague victims by rounding them up into concentration camps.

But this is a hard SF novel and while the bioscience starts well, it soon stretches to the snapping point. Programmers may look on DNA as just a lot of code, but, in fact, it's enormously more complex. And every geek should know that no program runs the first time without bugs and crashes -- it's ridiculous to postulate hacking large changes to human DNA that work perfectly on the very first try.

Without a central, compelling human drama to keep the reader focussed, and with the pace of the novel lagging, these credibility problems become especially conspicuous.

The Changeling Plague is rich in cool ideas but not nearly as strong a novel as Mitchell's previous book, Technogenesis.

Copyright © 2003 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

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