If I had first read a bullet-point list of all the concepts in Pandora’s Genes, I would have responded with “Nope, nope, nope, I’m out!” However, I would’ve regretted missing out on this story.
While Mrs. Triceratops and I were on our latest supply run to our local comic and used sci-fi/fantasy book store, I pulled out one book per female author for her to inspect closer. The cover of Pandora’s Genes drew me in; their garb appeared medieval, the broken down truck behind them touched upon the nostalgia of watching my wife play Fallout 3, and the oddly shaped fox-cat-thing provided evidence for a frolicking pet sidekick.
(The new cover for the 2011 reprint would have lost my interest, as modern covers tend to do, but at least this book should be easy to find.)
The flirting-with-pulp-style copy on the book didn't disappoint.
From the front cover:
In a beleaguered future world a beautiful girl, a powerful warrior and a foxcat with the gift of empathy battle to save the human race.
And then the back:
ABANDONED MACHINES LIE RUSTING,
USELESS WITHOUT FUEL.
HUMANITY FACES EXTINCTION AS
RECOMBINANT DNA RUNS RAMPANT.
WHO CAN SAVE THIS FUTURE WORLD?
The brilliant leader who strives to keep man from sliding back into savagery.
THE RELIGIOUS CULTISTS?
The anti-science fanatics.
The community of women scientists who live like warrior-nuns as they search for genetic answers.
Or does the future lie with Zach and Evvy, the fierce but gentle courier and the woman-child he has been sent to procure for his sadistic brother's delight? Can their love bring hope to the world again?
The romance angle didn't appeal to me, but everything else was gold. The ten reviews on Goodreads were further evidence that this was worth reading, though I was concerned when I read this line:
I know it was written in the mid-1980s, but it’s more relevant to what’s happening in the U.S. right now than anything that had occurred when the author was working on it.
I felt like I was capable of handling a potentially politically-frustrating book, so it went to the top of my to-read list.
One of the earliest instances of Kathryn Lance’s world building that impressed me was the superstitions among the largely poor population. The people believe wild “deenas”—malicious spirits—inhabit the rusting machines. As you might imagine, this makes the tribes of people uncomfortable around technology, which makes it easy for a corrupt cult with Christian roots to spread and bring the remnants of civilization back to a Dark Age mentality.
Simultaneously, a man who embraces technology is trying to build an empire. It’s foggy as to how altruistic the Principal’s intentions are; he genuinely wants humanity to thrive, but he fantasizes about how future generations will know his name. He also uses his role to semi-justify abusing young girls, but also acknowledges it’s a perversion he’d rather not have.
His compulsion, in any case, seemed to come upon him less and less. In the time since the move, he had had very few girls; none now for several months. In the mornings when he looked into the mirror, he saw gray strands in his hair; perhaps he was at last maturing, outgrowing the ruinous obsession that had controlled him for so long.
Despite his abusive ways, he is probably the most realistic character. It’s partially for this reason that I enjoyed the multiple viewpoints; a book purely from his perspective would be too much to stomach, but getting a glimpse into his mind while he interacts with the other POV characters provides interesting context.
Concerning Anita’s review from earlier, well, she was right. The following news articles were published shortly after I finished the book:
But on the ground in Alabama, local Republicans showed little sign of turning their backs on Moore. Some lashed out at his alleged victims.
"If they believe this man is predatory, they are guilty of allowing him to exist for 40 years. I think someone should prosecute and go after them. You can't be a victim 40 years later, in my opinion," state Rep. Ed Henry told The Cullman Times.
Regardless of whether the allegations are true, the mindsets of these individuals is unnerving.
Okay, back to the book.
Marrying age appears to be young in this world, in part because women are at high risk for death. Child bearing is dangerous without modern medicine, and families are relieved when a boy is born. My suspicion was this was related to perceived wealth in some way, but the truth is far more interesting so I won’t spoil it here.
It’s common for a woman to have two or more husbands. I rolled my eyes at first, expecting this to be like some fantasy you’d find in a hastily scrawled 20-page ebook, but the truth is the system ensures there are enough women to go around. Women are a rarity, which further intrigued me on why daughters were undesired.
The romance angle / love triangle was among my least favorite portions of the book, though a love triangle in a world where three or more people can get married does give it an interesting spin. This is usually my least favorite part of a book, though, so if you enjoy romance, take my opinion with a grain of salt.
The writing flows well, and sometimes can punch you in the gut (in a good way):
Above her and around as far as she could see were thick, leafy branches and wildly growing stalks. She would never find her way out of here—she would starve or be eaten by a wild animal. Each wet rustling of the leaves might be a fox-cat preparing to spring. Her teeth began to chatter, and she squeezed her eyes tightly shut, wanting to cry, to call out for her mother or for Zach.
But her mother had sold her and Zach wasn’t here.
I never understood why Evvy was enamored with Zach; it seemed like a case of Stockholm Syndrome to me. Toward the end, she does provide a reason that seems genuine, though my suspicions are she wrapped it in a lie.
Just a warning that page 62 in my copy had a rape attempt. It wasn’t so gruesome that I had to put the book down, and Evvy kicks the guy’s ass in a satisfying way. But, I wanted to let you know, just in case you need to skip such passages.
The religious cult was a bit too real for me. Not only does its anti-science stance actively sabotage the potential cure for women’s deaths, they claim books are evil, going so far as to say the old religion using Bibles was influenced by demons. Their ceremonies include burning books every day, and was more believable than Fahrenheit 451.
The Principal has read about dealing with such groups before, and is faced with a hard decision of stamping out the extremists (and potentially amplifying their voice) or allowing them to increase through freedom of speech.
The last part of the book went downhill for me, due to prolonged imprisonment and focusing on the religious cult.
Take, for example, this frustrating passage:
“You must have wondered why you have not been killed. We have no need for male prisoners. The reason you have been spared is that Yosh loved you. He told me more than once that in a different world you would have been his closest friend. … He cared for you too much to let you die a scientist. He knew that you could not help your background—although there are some, I’m afraid, who feel the best way to convert a scientist is to kill him. Still, Yosh wanted to cleanse your soul, and that is why he had you brought here.”
… his mission was to save humanity, and therefore anything in that end was justified.
The quality did not dip; my displeasure is rooted in how these excerpts are too real, and remind me of a pastor I knew as a kid.
To end on a positive note: warrior-nuns. I won’t divulge any secrets from these women-scientist warrior-nuns, though, as they were the highlight of the book. It doesn’t hurt that “warrior-nun” is as exciting a pair of words as Babylon 5’s “data-monk.”
Despite my unease in part 4, I stayed up late to finish it and started reading the second book the following day. I’m worried about more religious fanaticism and a bigger focus on the love triangle, but I also expect exquisite world-building and bite-sized victories along the way.
**If you are interested in this story, I recommend not reading the blurb on Goodreads, as it contains a surprising number of spoilers.**