Wednesday, 10 July 2002

Brian Stableford: The Cassandra Complex (2001)

Edition: Tor, 2001
Review number: 1105

Following his well received trilogy about the search for a way to bring immortality to the human race, Stableford has now written a prequel. The early advances in this endeavour in his future history came from research to counter the bio-engineered diseases released in the Plague Wars which end some decades before Inherit the Earth, the first of the trilogy. The Cassandra Complex is set at around the beginning of these wars, as the nations of the West watch the progress of "hyperflu" across the world towards them.

The Cassandra Complex has a similar form to the first two novels, also concerning the investigation into a crime among those involved with longevity technology. Lisa Frieman is both a police officer (in forensics) and a biological researcher with connections to the distinguished Morgan Miller (bizarrely misnamed on the jacket synopsis as Jordan Miller). The story starts when she is woken by the sound of intruders in her home, part of a concerted set of attacks which include the kidnapping of Miller and the destruction of a huge experiment. Mouseworld consists of hundreds of thousands of mice in a maze of connected cages intended to see if their strategies for survival might suggest ways for human beings to cope with the overpopulation crisis (which makes their destruction seem a strangely motiveless crime as the approaching war seems certain to solve this problem in a much more drastic way).

Lisa Freeman is intensely involved in the investigation, due to her combined roles of policewoman, biology expert and Miller's closest friend (and former lover) as well as being a peripheral victim. She is not entirely believable, but it is nice to see a central character who is rather more elderly than usual in science fiction.
Nanotechnology and biological engineering are hot topics in science fiction at the moment, and most of the stories they have inspired are set far enough in the future that current controversies about genetic manipulation can be ignored. (The trilogy itself is one example of this.) It allows a writer to explore ideas about what might be done with this sort of technology in a way that the moral issues make impossible in a more contemporary setting. Here, though, Stableford is writing about the near future, the main part of The Cassandra Complex being set in around 2040 with flashbacks to as early as 1999. Thus, Stableford has different concerns here; The Cassandra Complex is not about what could be done with the genetic techniques of the future but rather the dramatic potential of today's concerns about overpopulation, animal experimentation, cloning, biological warfare and the potential for accidental or deliberate release of harmful material. Except on the most obvious of these issues, Stableford seems to want to sit on the fence, not offending anyone (there are, of course, few who would argue that the development of biological weapons is a good thing; the most positive reasons anyone can come up with is to claim it is necessary in the world in which we live). The controversies do give the story a currency which is lacking from the more abstract speculations, though I would expect characters actually involved in biological research to have stronger opinions about the issues than Stableford actually gives them. To make them discuss the issues would, however, add more explanation and argument to a novel already rather overburdened with them.

Before the industrial revolution, most of the potential disasters faced by human societies were biological and ecological (plagues and famines). Then technological disasters seemed uppermost in the mind of the public (nuclear war); but now we have a combination of the two. The constant prediction of disaster is what gives the novel its title, the Cassandra complex being what is suffered by those who predict disaster but are ignored, a prime example being those concerned with the problems of overpopulation.

It is the characterisation which means that The Cassandra Complex doesn't quite live up to the standards set by the other three novels; it contains interesting ideas, and a good (and quite difficult) puzzle. It is certainly enough to make me keen to read Stableford's next novel.

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