(2010) Ben Kay, Penguin, £6.99, pbk, 504pp, ISBN 978-0-241-95211-5
The advance publicity for this Penguin title reveals that Ben Kay enjoys the works of Michael Crichton and films such as Alien. Furthermore, a quick scan of my collection shows that among other notable works Penguin has published: The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, Philip Dick's Time out of Joint, Harry Harrison's Make Room, Make Room, George Orwell's 1984, Marge Piercy's Body of Glass and even 'Buck Rogers' stories. This, and that 2010 has seen a number of great debut novels, meant that I was really looking forward to Ben Kay's debut SFnal techno-thriller Instinct.
In a remote South American jungle is a bio-weapons research complex called MEROS. There, a US black op is creating outsized killer wasps that are used to take out terrorist groups, as the giant wasps quickly strip their victim's flesh reducing them to bones. All well and good, but then an accident happens at the research labs and so the MEROS ops team seeks expert help.
Shortly, in London Laura Trent is a leading entomologist running a laboratory at the British Entomological Association when she is visited by an American, Steven Bishop, who says he is from a NATO facility in Venezuela that produces genetically modified insects and that they need Laura's expertise. Laura declines so Bishop's team kidnaps Laura's son Andrew from school. Laura therefore has no option but to go to the MEROS research facility in the Venezuelan jungle. Once there she discovers that giant wasps have killed the leading researcher in a section of laboratories that are now sealed off. They cannot freeze the section to kill the wasps as that would destroy vital research work, and so the adventure begins…
Now, I could begin this review by stating how stereotypical the characters in Instinct are, or how facile is the plot: though you may have guessed this from the above summary of the first three chapters. However this is the Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation and we all know that some SF novels (such as some pulp stories from the 1950s) have rather facile characterization and plotting. So it is no secret that some SF and techno-thriller stories, while lacking in some dimensions considered vital to mundane (non-SF) fiction, make up for it with the SF, the speculative science, and the sense of wonder. So how does Instinct score here?
Well, just in the first couple of chapters the author reveals that not only is he not at all scientifically literate, he cannot even be bothered to do any research to stack up credibility with potential scientifically literate readers (of which there are literally millions with school-level science in Britain alone). Now listen up, anything entitled British [insert specialist science discipline] Association or Society is in fact a learned scientific society. (Examples from biology include the British Association for Lung Research, Freshwater Biological Association, and so forth.) Learned societies are also called 'Association of [insert specialist science discipline]' or 'British Society for [insert specialist science discipline]' and even 'Royal [insert specialist science discipline] Society'. The real-life British Entomological Association that appears in Instinct is in fact the Royal Entomological Society. Learned societies do not maintain laboratories: they run conferences, publish journals, promote considered science policy views relating to their discipline, and so forth. In fact, had the author done his research (or at least asked an entomologist) the protagonist should have either been based at a university or at a Research Council's research Institute (a fictional equivalent of Rothampstead would be my choice but there are a few other options). So straight away anyone who knows anything about the way British science is organised realises that the author has not researched the basics.
But it is not just the way British science is run that is so out of kilter but the very science itself. Indeed, though school-level biologists will be gratified to know that the author does realise that insects are arthropods they will note that arthropods are not a 'group', as the author suggests, but a 'phylum'. In fact you do not even need to be into biology to realise that the author's scientific knowledge is a tad iffy as later on we discover that part of the MEROS base still has lights on after years of isolation due to 'self-sustaining Perpetual electricity' (sic). Yup, you can strike out school-level knowledge of physics too.
I am glad the author likes Crichton's fiction and films like Alien but clearly he does not appreciate them from a hard SF perspective. Take the Crichton story The Andromeda Strain or Alien: accepting the SFnal dimension of microscopic extraterrestrial life in the former, and space travel, artificial intelligence and macro-organism extraterrestrial life in the latter, great pains have been taken to ensure that otherwise their science content is of sufficient plausibility that belief can be successfully suspended. In the Andromeda Strain the germ free and SPF (specific pathogen free) aspects have a rationale and indeed some of the measures used in the book and film adaptation are used in real germ free labs. (I know, I worked in one for 18 months.) In the film Alien there is a very real sense of the creature having a life cycle and this is neatly incorporated into the story. Need I go on.
Given in Instinct we are presented with a poorly assembled plot that at best is a scantily coordinated mash of (admittedly worthy) SF tropes (high tech secret base, genetically modified insects, potential ecological catastrophe, highly intelligent scientist etc), underpinned by virtually zero researched science and stereotypical characters, what amazes me is that a publisher like Penguin accepted this book in the first place! It is equally amazing – apparent from the book's afterward acknowledgement – that all this comes after the Penguin team had made suggestions to improve the manuscript (MS): which begs the question what the MS must have been like beforehand? We also learn in the afterward that the author's agent took the book on (and here is a quote from the afterward acknowledgement):
"…in spite of some very good reasons to chuck [the] manuscript into the nearest incinerator. Here would be a good place to admit to [the author's agent] that [the author] may have fibbed slightly when [he] suggested that other agents were interested."
What is this 'may have fibbed'; did he lie or didn't he? What is this 'fibbed slightly'; is that like being slightly pregnant?
Now, those of you who regularly read my reviews know that rarely am I so negative. I really do so hate panning books because, if nothing else, it means that in deciding to review a book I have wasted my time reading it, but in this instance I was lured by the pre-publicity sent as well as the publisher's standing. So it really is with genuine regret that I have to confess that I can find little to commend this novel. I cannot even recommend it as a teenager's read: youngsters can delve into the considerable body of classic speculative fiction and techno-thrillers of yore, or even some of the good current stuff, if they are stuck for something to read. There really is plenty out there. Conversely, with Instinct, the author lets his potential readers down as well as himself. Now, it is likely that he does, as a person, have some strengths (clearly he can string a sentence together and make a sale against the odds), the question is whether among them is the strength (and grace) to realise that writing fiction is not one of them.
Of course, I too am fallible; it may well be that I have made a gross misjudgement and I have missed some redeeming aspect of excellence. So let me say here and now that in the event that Instinct is short-listed (not necessarily wins just makes the short list) of either the BSFA, Clarke, Locus or Hugo Awards (any one will do), then I will endeavour to have news of this added to this review below and admit I got it so very wrong.
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