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Mariposa by Greg Bear

Frankly, I almost didn’t bother buying this latest effort by Greg Bear. I found City at the End of Time almost completely unreadable, the book having the dubious distinction of being the only one I failed to finish in 2008. Indeed, as he ages, little of his work this century has been of the quality we had come to expect. Yet Quantico had been a reasonably competent thriller so I decided to try the sequel.

Well, here we are in the elephant’s graveyard of great science fiction writers who have decided they can no longer sell in sufficient numbers if they write genre specific content. Their answer is the “near-future thriller” where you emulate Tom Clancy, but bolt on a few sfnal ideas as a sop to the Cerberus representing the rump of your genre fans. Make no mistake. Some of Bear’s earlier work is outstanding and his fan base is justifiably large. But I think this is a sell-out. If he wants a few extra dollars to pad out his retirement fund, he should write another Star Wars novel.

Thematically, we are back in the realm of the paired novels Darwin’s Radio and Darwin’s Children, and Blood Music, this time with human intervention stimulating a potential evolutionary change — although it’s not actually clear the “enhancements” would pass to any children. Having cut my teeth on Van Vogt and other Golden Age authors dealing with the emergence of humans with “super” powers, I suppose I have a predisposition to be interested in modern takes on the original naive outings. This kind of “what if” novel explores how “real” people begin to recognise their divergence from the norm and observes how they react. Fifty or sixty years ago, we had watched the collapse of both the Eugenics Movement in the US and the Aryanism underpinning Germany’s racial hygiene policy to breed a Master Race. Scaling the ideas down to a form of scientific fantasy gives us the opportunity to decide what a society might look like “if”, or how a conventional society might react to a different strain of humanity “if”. It’s safer than fighting wars and avoids the population controls imposed through sterilisation programs in the 1930s.

In this instance, it would have been interesting to have a better understanding of the Talos Corporation’s motivation in moving to shut down the research program. As a militaristic organisation, Talos might see the continuation of the program as a good way of developing conscienceless, supersoldiers who do not stop fighting even when others would be traumatised. It’s possible, of course, that Talos has the optimised treatment to induce this state and simply wishes to eliminate inconvenient witnesses. But, since Talos is plotting to take over the bits of the “world” supposed to matter, there’s no reason for it to care about the witnesses in the short period of time before its plans come to fruition. It could simply hold them on its land and continue the research under direct supervision.

Paralleling the emergence of a new “human”, we have an AI going through early development into an autonomous “being”. But, again, little is made of this. It feels more like a convenient bolt-on, adding little to the outcome. Unfortunately, in the SF world, AIs have become somewhat hackneyed plot devices unless they have emerged into a mature state and are able to defend themselves. In such cases, it can be interesting to consider whether there’s a substantive difference between human and machine-based intelligence.

The good news is that core the thrillerish elements are involving and I did care what happened to Faud Al-Husam who’s working undercover inside the Talos organisation. I also liked the irony in the vulnerability introduced into the Talos “kingdom” through the paranoia of its CEO, Axel Price, even if it did take a superscience weapon to exploit it. There’s a pleasing reality to Price’s decision-making. Even if he had foreseen the vulnerability, he would probably have preferred to take the risk rather than sacrifice maximised security.

So if you think Prey and, to a lesser extent, State of Fear by Michael Crichton are fabulous thrillers, Mariposa is for you. But if you’re an SF fan, as near-future thrillers go, it’s good, but not that good.

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