Fiction Reviews

The Mother Code

(2020) Carole Stivers, Hodder & Stoughton, £20.99, hrdbk, 340pp, ISBN 978-1 529 37815-3


One of the marks of a good book is that it is hard to put down, and that was certainly the case with this one. This is the author’s first novel; she is a biochemist in real life and has made good use of her background.

Chronologically the story starts in 2049. Under the project name of Tabula Rosa, the American military had developed a DNA-based bio-weapon; it is effective and should be completely safe. The weapon consisted of ball-shaped, short strands of DNA which can enter human cells and modify their behaviour; in this instance the cells of the lungs change so that they no longer replenish themselves when they wear out. It takes a couple of weeks but then the victims slowly start to suffocate; death is unavoidable. The weapon is safe because in the open air the DNA strands soon denature; they straighten out and become completely harmless. In a troublesome region of Afghanistan, American troops are under attack from enemy combatants holed up in mountain caves and the answer is simple - use a drone to spray a mist of the weaponised DNA over the area, wait a few weeks, and safely go in and dispose of the bodies. With no trace left of the weapon, no-one will know what happened; the enemy have simply ceased to be problem.

Col. Rick Blevins, an analyst in the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence, had warned against the potential dangers of such a weapon and is horrified to find that it has actually been deployed. Furthermore, his fears are proven correct - there is a serious problem. At first the mission had seemed a complete success but after a few months an incurable ‘sickness’ started appearing in nearby villages, and even American service staff in the area were beginning to contract it. Research showed that although the weapon behaved as expected, the harmless, straightened DNA segments could be absorbed by archaebacteria in the local soils. It merged into their DNA, replicated, caused the archaebacteria to ‘explode’, and thus be released back into the atmosphere in its original, deadly form. In short, the weapon had got out and was slowly spreading. If left unstopped, in time it would traverse the world and kill all of humanity. Rick Blevins found himself tasked with saving the human race.

With only a very few aware of the threat of global calamity, US forces quietly do their best to contain the infection. All they can achieve is slowing it; as with any spreading disease it will spread exponentially and by the time the world wakes up to it, it will be near the end. Meanwhile, in the small handful of years available to them, the biochemists work furiously to develop a treatment. Even if they can develop one in time, how will they distribute it to the world’s billions?

As an alternative, Blevins’ team work on a different solution - creating naturally immune people, kick-starting a new human race. This requires complex DNA manipulation of embryos and producing such viable embryos will be incredibly difficult in the time available. Furthermore, with the human race about to disappear entirely, who will rear such babies and bring them up?

And so they create the Mothers; military bots hastily developed not to fight wars but to rear babies and bring them to adulthood. They have artificial wombs, give birth, and will see to their charge’s needs. They will protect them, feed them, educate them, and train them for survival and the creation a new society. Rose McBride realises that the Mothers will have to surpass mere machines and act as real mothers; for them to do this, she develops the Mother Code. She studies the real mother of each embryo and implants their personalities, knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes into each Mother.

By early 2054 the disease has become obvious to the world and everywhere is inundated with it; worldwide people are dying by their thousands, then millions, every day. Blevins’ team, somewhat protected by recently developed medicines, rush to finish their project before they too succumb. Carrying their tiny embryos, the Mothers are launched; sleek, nuclear powered, metal-bodied, with arms, legs, and caterpillar tracks, they also have fold-away wings and ducted fan engines. There are just fifty of them, scattering widely as they take their charges to hide out in the desserts of the American West.

The future of the children will depend on how good the Mother Code is and there lies a problem: Rose McBride just did not have time to complete it all. The Mothers were launched and left to figure out the rest for themselves. They may have the knowledge and instincts of the real mothers but they are, after all, only computers running code. They have the ability to learn, but will they learn enough? How will they look after their children? Will they be able to find each other? Will they be able to build a new human race?

And so we move forward to 2060. Kai is now six and his Mother, Rho-Z, or Rosie as he calls her, decides it is time to look for the other children. How will they fare? How many have survived? Driven by their incomplete Mother Code, will they succeed in restarting the human race?

The novel is nicely constructed and moves up and down the timeline as it tells its story. Moving between the early days with Blevins and his team and, a few years later, the exploits of Kai as his Mother decides it is time to find the other children, the story builds in a very satisfactory way. As the Then and the Now come closer together, we move on the What Next. The pacing is even throughout and the chapters neatly blended. The story felt real and the characters stood up soundly; there were enough to make the story work whilst being spared there being too many to keep track of. The science also felt right and, in this day of CoVID-19, I found a certain resonance with our current situation.

I enjoyed this book (and, indeed, found it hard to put down). I thought it had a good, thought-through story to tell and was well written. For a first novel it leaves me wondering what the author will write next - and I am looking forward to finding out.

Peter Tyers


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