Sunday, April 27, 2014

Surfing the Human Wave: Pam Uphoff's Outcasts and Gods

I don't generally have a problem suspending my disbelief. For heaven's sake, I watch superhero movies! Boy gets bit by a spider and is gifted with the ability to throw spinnerets and swing through the skyscrapers of New York? Sure! Man gets exposed to radiation and becomes a giant, green rage-monster? OK! So when Pam Uphoff's Outcasts and Gods - the first of her Wine of the Gods series - presented me with young-adult heroes whose genetics enable them to mentally jigger with matter, space and time, I said to myself, "Ah! This is an origin story. I can roll with this!" Yes -- it's highly unlikely that, even in the distant future, genetic tampering will unlock the ability to open portals to other dimensions. Shrink rays, however, are also unlikely -- and I still like the DS9 episode that uses a thinly-disguised shrink ray as a critical plot component. If it's fun - and if I care about the people involved - handwavium can be forgiven.

What does bother me about Outcasts and Gods is how Uphoff portrays the society's reaction to her young super-humans. I do see what she bases it on, mind you. Humans do have an evolutionary instinct to suspect The Other. They also have, in my opinion, good historical reasons to be wary of any project that seeks to "improve" the human genome. (Eugenics, anyone?) But would we really be so indiscriminately cruel to the engineered -- even without some sort of precipitating event? Maybe I'm just an incurable optimist, but I have more faith than that. I think most people would be able to distinguish between therapeutic changes that cure diseases like cystic fibrosis and purely cosmetic changes. I also think most people would reject out of hand treating the engineered like slaves and animals -- especially given their blindingly obvious humanity. I can see society punishing the companies who pursue illicit genetic research -- but punishing the recipients, who had no choice in the matter? Such injustice would probably be challenged by more than a small handful of the personally involved. The Catholic Church, for example, opposes artificial reproductive technologies without denying people the sacraments solely because they were conceived in a petri dish. Wouldn't the Church respond to genetic engineering in much the same way?

Outcasts and Gods is a decent read, and I generally enjoyed it. Still, the heavy-handed evil of the antagonists does hurt the credibility of the story. A little more nuance, I think, would've gone a long way.

Final Verdict: Recommended, But With Notes

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