(2004) Paul McAuley, Simon & Schuster, £12.99, hrdbk, 521 pp, ISBN 0-7432-3885-0
Nicholas Hyde is a voluntary worker in the heart of Africa documenting human atrocities. One day in the field his team is attacked, but not by anything you could exactly call human, rather a group of short, white, sharp-toothed hairless ape creatures who move with speed, know no fear, and are incredibly vicious. Nicholas and one other escape in a helicopter with the body of one of their attackers, but on returning to civilisation the corpse is whisked away and the authorities say that the attack was done by (war-)painted children for some rebel cause... Africa, in the not too distant future, is a frontier continent that has not recovered well from a recent, but past, global plague. Running the Congo is a high-tech multinational company with an environmentally friendly front but less ethical foundations. Hyde is not believed but he is determined to find the answer as to what these creatures are: the suspicion is some genetic experiment. On the run from the authorities he has to dodge not only the multi-national's assassins but also a religious mercenary who is out to cleanse the World of all biotechnological blasphemies. Hyde's investigation takes him to the heart of Africa's dead zone, an area where a biotechnological plague has turned the vegetation and animals to plastic...
McAuley is shaping up nicely as a hard SF author. (He used to be more fantastical rather than hard SF.) He has created a solid plot and has a sound command of narrative that carries the story along at a respectable pace. The fictional science, as it is, is believable though not comprehensive. If anything this is my one grumble. McAuley is after all a biologist and Africa is rich with species that have exotic life cycles which, in the context of a biotech catastrophe, would have added a vivid extra dimension to the plot. This is definitely an opportunity missed and one that I regret for there are few SF writers around with the bioscience knowledge to deliver on that front: McAuley could easily take Michael Crichton's bio-mantle (cf. The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park) had he a mind to do so. Indeed, as in real-life we are having to come to grips with the implications of genomics, this is an ideal time to address such issues. Notwithstanding this quibble, White Devils is a masterful work that will undoubtedly get short-listed for a few SF awards. Recommended.
Reviews of other McAuley books on this site are Pasquale's Angel, Red Dust and The Secret of Life.
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