|Tor, 1999, 319pp, $24.95|
Another Dave Langford review.
Brian Stableford has invested a good deal of thought in his own tough-minded future history, based on plausible nanotechnological and gene-engineering developments. This scenario has its roots in that 1985 work of coffee-table futurology The Third Millennium (interest declared: the present reviewer was billed as co-author for contributing some speculative physics and space technology) and in Stableford's fine solo collection Sexual Chemistry: Sardonic Tales of the Genetic Revolution (1991). His previous Tor novel Inherit the Earth (1998) discussed the possible state of play in the late 22nd century, and Architects of Emortality is set during a time of subtle changes near the close of the 25th century.
Architects, in fact, is very literally a fin de siècle novel, and it's not mere frivolity that a central character is called--and models himself upon, right down to the green carnations--Oscar Wilde. Perhaps less plausible is the chance partnership of UN police detectives Charlotte Holmes and Hal Watson.... This future history is passing through an undramatic but important transition period. All the above-named characters belong to old humanity, whose nanotech rejuvenations can be repeated only a few times before the brain wears out, and who must sooner or later hand the torch to their race's engineered "emortal" heirs--not immortals, a word that's carefully avoided, but humans whose potential lifespans may have no set limit. Stableford has indicated that he preferred the fin de siècle title The Flowers of Evil, as used for the Nebula-shortlisted 1994 novella on which this novel was based; apparently his publishers, with a view to the accepted terminology of the sf market, disagreed.
Indeed there are literal flowers of evil here. A mysterious femme fatale is bestowing poisoned kisses on certain obscurely linked members of the old human order. The spectacular result is that engineered flowers based on amaranths, incorporating hungry genes from nematode worms, consume and transform the victims' flesh to leave each corpse as its own stylish floral tribute: a skeleton wreathed in exotic black blossoms.
"The skull, in particular, was very strikingly embellished, with a single stem emerging from each of the empty eye sockets. Charlotte knew well enough what level of genius this meticulous design implied--and what level of insanity."
Appropriate quotations from Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal and the first Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Gaol accompany each delivery of flowers. The future Wilde, a designer of gene-engineered plants who is lured by a message to the scene of the first-discovered crime, insists that the killing's style is that of his own close rival who creates floral wreaths as "Rappaccini". As Wilde eruditely notes, this recalls Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1844 tale of an unwittingly poisonous femme fatale: "Rappaccini's Daughter", additionally linking back to the legend of Mithridates and forward to Richard Garnett's "The Poison Maid".... (The enigmatic Rappaccini, person of many pseudonyms, also has bank accounts under such names as Gustave Moreau and Thomas De Quincey. Well, he would, wouldn't he?)
So Wilde and Holmes follow the trail of murder and mystery carefully laid down by the hidden villain, who has orchestrated their "pursuit" into a private godgame that's intended to blossom as a psychodrama of self-justification, a celebration of a perfect crime, and also a memorial. Expositions of what's happening and how it can be seen against a larger backdrop are mostly delivered by flamboyant Wilde, whose egotism combines with the general bizarreness of events to make this read more compellingly than Inherit the Earth (a thoughtful novel which occasionally tended to fall into a pattern of "hero gets kidnapped in another high-tech attack and then listens to another lecture on the current state of the plot"). Bob Shaw once described an sf plot as a machine designed to rotate and angle the central idea in order to display its every facet to best advantage: in Architects of Emortality this machinery is consciously artificial, brazenly rococo, and lavishly bedecked with ormolu.
Stableford has several further striking effects up his sleeve, including an unexpected shift in the nature of the crimes once the last and best protected victim is reached, a biotechnological getaway vehicle in the best tradition of James Bond, and the triumphant hubris of the villain's artistic legacy. The new-old Oscar Wilde is a necessary character, since only he can interpret such creative niceties to the secret masters (or Dominant Shareholders) of the greyish New World Order that lurks behind the scenes ... who are not much impressed.
The novel closes with an epilogue entitled "Happily Ever After", which inevitably has an edge of Stablefordean irony, but also elements of literal truth. Overall, Architects of Emortality offers an enjoyable mix of playfulness and sharp intelligence.
|First published in Foundation 77, Autumn 1999. |
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