The day is nearing when I’ll have a bunch of posts up. Until then, inspired by this news story about bioengineered plagues, I thought I’d post this . . .
Raw Feed (1997): Oaths and Miracles, Nancy Kress, 1996.
In marketing (the spine says “thriller”) and style this is more of a contemporary suspense novel than sf. However, Kress once again takes her specialty – the consequences of genetic engineering – and makes a fast-reading, well-written (none of her usual problems with weak endings) novel dealing with a chillingly plausible bit of speculation – engineered cold viruses programmed to induce heart attacks in a specific individual.
Kress ends her novel with three news stories each illustrating a point about genetic technology.
The mobsters trying to develop the ultimate assassination weapon are indicted. However, the secret appears uncontained since the President of Mexico dies of a mysterious heart attack. The same knowledge also seems to promise a cure for cancer – neatly illustrating the double-headed nature of all technology.
This book is compelling though the usual elements of chase and on-stage violence are few (the assault on the Cadoc commune and the attempts on Judy Kozinski’s life), and Kress relies a bit too much on coincidence in having Kozinski duck her head unknowingly at a convenient time to avoid being shot.
Kress also commits that most annoying of thriller clichés: having a man and woman meet in the course of events and fall in love, though, to her credit, Robert Cavanaugh and Judy Kozinski’s romance is hinted at taking place at novel’s end.
What most impressed me about this novel was not only Kress’ usual thought-provoking use of genetic engineering and its moral questions, but her characters and how they all relate to the themes of lost love and spontaneous moral order.
All three main characters are somehow dealing with losing a loved one through estrangement (Cavanaugh and Wendell Botts) or death (Judy Cavanaugh).
Cavanaugh posts so many letters and faxes to his estranged wife she gets a restraining order against him. Botts desperately tries to stay sober and draw attention to the Soldiers of the Divine Covenant commune where his ex-wife and children are. Kozinski suffers violent mood swings and months of despair after her husband is murdered. Her sanity is only restored by investigating why her husband was killed.
Orson Scott Card has criticized sf writers for creating characters in a vacuum bereft of family. That is certainly not true here. Kress herself has criticized sf writers for depicting childless worlds and characters. That is certainly not true here.
Botts is a man futilely, desperately trying to win his children back.
Each of these characters are trying to serve some idea of a moral order. Cavanaugh is concerned with justice – and his career. Kozinski is trying to solve a mystery. (She compares this desire to her physicist and lay-theologian father who seeks mystery in God). Botts has the most basic desire: restoration of his father.
Religion is an element here with Judy’s father, a devout Catholic, noting everything isn’t solvable, that something always happens … to change our picture of the universe. Religious faith provides succor (of a habitual sort) to Kozinski when the Cadoc compound is assaulted (another plot coincidence with her being there when it happened). Botts falls back on religion too when his wife dies. Of course, the Divine Covenant compound is a negative example; however, it is never corrupted into willingly sacrificing humans.
Kress, at novel’s end, seems to postulate that a moral order can only exist in the modern world through the acts of conscientious individuals. Agent Cavanaugh and the FBI can not break the mobsters behind Verico. He realizes that it is only because minor characters Jeanne Cassidy and research assistant Miriam Ruth Kirchner that they will be brought to trial. The courage of individuals, Kress seems to say, will be necessary in a world with such powerful genetic manipulation.