Genre is a fluid thing; so much of it is couched in perception. David Wellington’s Laura Caxton novels are horror, because they are about vampires and have grinning shark-toothed bloodsuckers on the cover. But they could just as easily be packaged as mysteries, focusing on Laura as a highway trooper, as a part of the crime-busting apparatus that you don’t normally think of when you think of your FBI or CSI or homicide detectives, thrust into extreme circumstances; something like Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder series.
Chimera by David Wellington is positioned as a thriller, the cover achieving that special sort of quasi-military fiction feel. “A Jim Chapel Mission” is what the reading line says but I know better: this is horror science-fiction. This is a story on the cutting edge of plausibility, that can be read however you feel like it—as long as it is on the edge of your seat.
It is pretty neat living in the future. I mean, come on, we live in a world where a story about genetically engineering super soldiers to be sociopathic murderers is within the realm of belief. That is pretty intense; the fact that you’d send a cyborg soldier shepherded by a bodiless hacker to take care of them is pure gravy. The science fiction future is now. When I was younger, all this dystopian cyberpunk stuff was a pipe dream. Some of it, like virtual reality, never really materialized in the way people thought it would; some of it, like cybernetics and genetic engineering are just now getting to the state of the art prototype phase. Other parts of it, like shadowy government conspiracies, are perennial. So what exactly is the essential ingredient? I guess it is like a cocktail; it isn’t any one thing, but it is in the ingredients and the preparation.
Let me be honest. I miss Laura Caxton. I miss vampires. Genetically engineered killer supersoldiers—that doesn’t really count as a spoiler, I don’t think—are all well and good, but I miss the undead. Wellington has a way of making the unbelievable, well, believable, so it almost feels like a bunch of mutant serial killers is playing it safe. I like Jim Chapel, and I am curious to see where he goes, and yeah, my fondness for Caxton comes from having more books for her to grow in, so I don’t want to compare him too harshly. He needs room.
Laura Caxton wasn’t a “strong female character,” in that she was a strong female character who didn’t need air quotes around “strong female character.” She didn’t fall prey to the easy pitfalls a lesser writer could have taken her down. But Jim Chapel hasn’t quite gotten to break out of the square jawed male hero mold. Not that he’s stuck in it, but he reminds me a lot of Solid Snake. Or any of those sort of “infiltrator thinking man’s special ops guy” types. Mostly Snake, though; it is hard not to think of Metal Gear Solid what with Chapel’s Codec chiming in his ear all the time.
The one crucial moment, I think, is when Chapel decides he cares about living, that he cares about doing the right thing, not just following orders. The token rebellion is part of the formula—“Damn it, MacGillycuddy, you’re the best cop we have, but I need your badge and your gun!”—but because it is Wellington, it isn’t handled as though it was rote. It isn’t just checking off a box that says “maverick” on it; it is a character defining watershed. He isn’t just a drone who follows orders; not any more.
The biggest “near future element”—as in, the future so near you could suspend disbelief far enough to imagine that it might be happening right now under the aegis of a shadowy conspiracy—is genetic engineering; both its potential and its threat. Now, I’m a big fan of Frankenstein, but I have to say that the conservatism of thrillers always sort of makes me sad—the fear of science that drives so many novels, even as the book glories in it. Wellington is a pro who uses the trope like a scalpel, encouraging you to doubt whether everything is as it seems, or whether that “kill ‘em all and let god sort ‘em out” attitude was justly deserved. Another mark of a professional is his ability to create something iconic; the super-soldiers with their black shark eyes that form a protective third lid is a perfect example of pushing just far enough over that you fall into the Uncanny Valley. Genetic engineering isn’t the only “The Year 20XX” bit of technology; both cybernetics and information technology are showcased, and if anything they are much more plausible as state of the art. Smart limbs are coming, and the fact that Chapel has a decker on his Shadowrun team—I mean, a hacker only present digitally—drips verisimilitude, to me.
Which ultimately is Wellington’s biggest “trick.” He rings true. He can convince you that vampires are believed to have gone extinct in the 80s or that a werewolf hunter would purposefully give himself argyria, and he certainly can convince you that Jim Chapel is in over his head. And if Chapel can’t handle it, then maybe no one can.
Chimera is available now from William Morrow.