One part Planet of the Apes and one part X-men, Laura Anne Gilman’s Dragon Virus is exciting but bleak, a provocative view of a future built on genetic engineering. In a world where evolution can be controlled, are human beings worthy of moving around their own building blocks? It’s not an original concept, but Gilman tells a compelling and concise story by relating brief vignettes over a century of speculative history.
The premise of Dragon Virus is an interesting synthesis of existing science fiction concepts, where anxieties about genetic modification color everyday concerns about religion, adolescence and community. A series of mutations results in still-born babies with physical qualities that seem to be drawn from old mythology. Wings, gills, and extra arms inspire equal parts religious fervor and scientific curiosity among ordinary people. Over time, advances in medicine allow these children to survive and to thrive, and the world must adapt as its people resist change.
The strongest content appears in chapters 2 and 3, which follow the experiences of one of the first doctors to research the phenomenon, and a circle of friends who are mutated schoolchildren that must rise up against prejudice. While these figures have little opportunity to grow beyond their brief and sketchy appearances, Gilman’s strength as a writer is her ability to draw sympathetic characters quickly. Their reactions to conflict are extraordinary in that they are so ordinary, and not predictably dramatic or heroic.
Gilman borrows a trick from horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, in that she allows the writing to be seamlessly smarter than her characters. As they narrate, even casual readers end up knowing things that the people of that changing world never learn. It’s an efficient way to impart a story that few other writers do well. On the downside, Gilman makes up futuristic slang that is appropriate for the setting, but difficult to read. Thankfully, the language doesn’t distract from the powerful ideas.
Dragon Virus, by Laura Anne Gilman. Published 2011 by Fairwood Press, ISBN 978-1-933846-25-5. 102 pages, softcover and limited-edition hardcover.
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