REVIEW: Dragon Virus by Laura Anne Gilman

MY RATING:

THE SKINNY: Six stories that show the sociological changes wrought by a mysterious genetic mutation.

PROS: The format allows Gilman to deftly display society’s reactions over time in a crisp fashion. Extremely potent writing.

CONS: I would have liked more explicit linking of stories; I found it difficult, scientifically, to buy the premise.

VERDICT: A slender volume that takes readers through a slow motion genetic apocalypse.

“It? The Lóng sequence, of course. The Chinese researchers had named it, but the Wheelers, a messianic sect popular when he was a kid had given it a personality: the Dragon, tearing apart humanity one strand at a time”

Dragon Virus bills itself as “a tragedy in six evolutions / an evolution in six tragedies“. The book (a limited hardcover) is a collection of six stories by Laura Anne Gilman. Known for her urban fantasy, paranormal romance and secondary world fantasy novels, in Dragon Virus, Gilman tackles a different beat entirely. In six stories set ranging from the very near future, through the end of the century, Gilman shows us a world that is slowly crumbling from environmental collapse. In the midst of this, a strange set of mutations has inexplicably started showing up with no known cause or pattern. Dubbed the Lóng sequence, the Dragon sequence, its social effects are the subject of the six stories here.

When I got a sense of the premise and started reading the book, my mind immediately went to Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio and Darwin’s Children diptych, where genetic changes unlocked by a retrovirus start warping newborn children. Those volumes, too, used jumps in time, although nowhere near as large as the ones Gilman uses. Like Gilman does here, Bear used the jumps to better show the societal changes over time as the world reacts to the genetic effects and those who bear them.

That’s where the similarities end. In his novels, Bear goes into crunchy detail with his genetic changes, giving what felt like, to someone who has a B.A. in Biology, a working and plausible mechanism for the genetic mutations that we see in his novel. By contrast, Gilman eschews such details, and what speculation there is did not ring as overly plausible to me. Genetic mutations simply, as far as my knowledge of the field tells me, do not and cannot work as it occurs in Gilman’s universe. What the Lóng sequence and its changing effects over time feels like to me is not science fiction at all, but rather another speculative fiction virus that results in unexpected effects on a population–the Joker virus of the fantasy Wild Cards universe.

The hard science questions aside and dealt with, what we do have here is strongly sociological science fiction. In the six stories, Gilman shows us, sometimes too briefly for my taste, the changing Lóng sequence, the changing society, and the changing world that results from both. I would have liked a little more explicit reuse of characters in stories, to show their changing reactions as the world changes, but Gilman resolutely uses new and novel protagonists for each story.

There is a nice bit of linking, though, in another fashion, as callbacks of ideas and themes from previous stories provide a thread of ideas, even if characters themselves do not reappear. The tragedy of newborn deaths gives way to prejudices against the mutated, which in turn changes as the Long sequence becomes more commonplace, until…but that would be telling.

Gilman’s stories go right to the questions of what it means to be human, and what it means to grow up in a world that is itself, within an inescapable torrent of Change. Her use of young adults as most of her protagonists, a time of life marked by upheaval and change even for normal people, reinforces and deepens the themes that she is trying to evoke in the stories. On those grounds, and in that métier, Gilman is stunningly successful. Her writing is amazingly evocative and wrings out emotion from even the most hard-hearted reader. The tragic ending to one story brought tears to my eyes.

I don’t think that Gilman’s story cycle here is for every reader, and frankly, until I finished it, I wasn’t sure it was for me, either. To an extent, I still think I was not quite the right demographic for the book, even though I have previously enjoyed her fantasy fiction. I do generally prefer my science fiction to be more technological and less sociological, more Greg Bear and less Ursula Le Guin. Readers who feel the same as I do might be somewhat let down by Dragon Virus, or find it wasn’t quite the perfect reading fit for them.

On the other hand, if you are the kind of reader who could care less about the difference between 5-Methylcytosine and Uracil, and want to take a potent ride through a changing future, exploring themes and ideas that resonate as much in the modern day as in her darkly evolving future, Laura Anne Gilman’s Dragon Virus is definitely commended to you.