Completed 7/20/2019, Reviewed 7/20/2019
This book was nominated for three awards, including the Nebula, and won the Lambda Literary Award for SF/Fantasy/Horror. It’s received rave reviews. My expectations of the book were fairly high. It began well, but quickly became a fairly average chase through the world of biotech hacking. It has robots, an antihero, and everyone is both a little good and a little bad. It didn’t become a slog to read. It just wasn’t that exciting.
Jack Chen is a female pirate in the pharma world. She reverse-engineers medication, makes her own from the formulas, and sells them cheap to the poor. Sort of a Robin Hood pharmacist. One of the drugs she has recreated makes people love their work so that they are more productive. The side effect is that it causes people to become addicted to it. They become obsessed with their work, often killing themselves from lack of food, drink, and sleep, and sometimes taking other people down with them. Jack feels guilty, but also angry that the side effects were never published by the manufacturer. She decides to figure out an anti-addiction drug to cure people of their highly addicted state. Because of the deaths, the government is stepping in to try to capture Jack. They send Eliasz, a man, and Paladin, a gender neutral robot, to track her down. Most of the book is about the two trying to track Jack down while she tries to elude them on her way to finding the cure and giving the manufacturer its just reward for making such a terrible drug.
The plot sounds really exciting from the summary. I think the problem was the writing. It didn’t take me to any action nor provide me with any suspense. Even the subplots did not draw me in. One of the biggest disappointments was that Eliasz falls in love with his robot sidekick, but is afraid of his feelings because “he’s not a faggot”. Jack’s history as a subversive, anti-patent activist is kind of interesting. In her past, we find out she’s bisexual, falling in love with other activists as they work against big pharma. But even her story is kind of lackluster. Again, I think it’s the prose. It simply didn’t grab me.
There’s another interesting subplot which isn’t explained very well. This is the near future, and it appears that global warming has made the arctic habitable. A lot of the action takes place in the far northern Canadian city of Yellowknife. We also find out that there are levees and pumps to keep the water out of midtown Manhattan. But there’s no emphasis on any of these. Lastly, Jack travels around the northwest passage in a submarine. That in itself should be intriguing, but she ditches it early on to travel by land as she tries to elude her would-be captors.
I give this book three stars out of five. It was okay, but I think the author could have used a lot better feedback to get the story pumped up more. It’s a shame because there were so many good ideas in here. It just wasn’t executed well. I think it won the Lammy for its representation of Jack as bisexual, and for the genderless, borderline transgender, portrayal of Paladin.
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