Science Fiction Review


(1999) Robert Charles Wilson, Millennium, 5.99, pbk, 218pp, ISBN 1-85798-737-3


It is the 22nd century. Travel between star systems is possible, but is hugely expensive; prohibitively so for all but the most necessary trips. Consequently humanity's efforts are focused on the only nearby Earth-like world, Isis.

Isis is rich with plants and animals but nearly every organic molecule from its biosphere is highly toxic to terrestrial life. Consequently the entire planet is off limits except for those who are especially protected and biologically isolated. Zoe Fisher was born, genetically engineered to have a certain (but incomplete) resistance to Isis. However unknown to her she has been got to by political factions on Earth. Meanwhile the reason for the Isis-Terran immutability lies at the core of the very fundamental nature of life in the universe.

Robert Charles Wilson is an author after my own heart. As far as I am concerned he has several things going for him. First, though he has written little, he seems to have an interest in biology and his earlier book Darwinia is truly excellent (and winner of the 1998 SF Chronicle Award). This biological focus is tremendously welcome in hard SF which is traditionally dominated by the physical sciences (primarily astronomy, fundamental physics and computing). Secondly, he recognises that size is not everything and can spin a cracking yarn in just a couple of hundred pages. Third, he is a bit of a polymath and treads the biology-physics boundary with ease.

I have to say - having spent my school-university gap year working in germ free and SPF (specific pathogen free) labs - that Wilson has successfully conveyed the tension of such work. Though clearly my job was to keep areas/volumes either completely sterile (save for the study organism) or free from specific bugs from myself and the outside world. Conversely, Wilson's protagonists' very lives depend on maintaining their own biological isolation. Indeed having worked in this area, I was biting my nails down to the elbows waiting for the inevitable to happen, and it did... Wilson did not disappoint. Though (for me at least) there was a certain predictability about the path the plot took, its over all outcome, in the cosmic sense, was reasonably inventive and was sufficiently a surprise to make the read a most satisfying one.

I am a great believer in science fiction's ability to stimulate an interest in science and Wilson is certainly an author to do that. Which brings me on to my current soap-box issue. While I am delighted that Wilson writes to an appropriate length, he might consider adding a 20 or 30 page appendix outlining and citing some of the science that he uses and inspires him. I do think that hard SF books (though obviously not softer SF) would greatly benefit from such appendices.

Clearly Wilson is to biological SF as Gibson is to the computer sciences. As an SF fan and as a natural scientist, I whole heartedly recommend Wilson to you. Hard SF readers, seek his works out! Publishers, give the man some encouragement. He is far better than good.

Jonathan Cowie

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