Unselfish Gene, The by Burns, Robert, 2008

Unselfish Gene, The by Burns, Robert - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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Zombies, altruism, sex and spaceships. That pretty much sums up what I do here, in my off hours. And I finally found a book that does it all at once too. The Unselfish Gene is Robert Burns' first published book, and although it seems that he is happy in the cliquey world of independent, small house niche publishing, I think that he probably has a bright future ahead of him. The Unselfish Gene is the story of an impossible survival mission to save the Lunar remnants of humanity from a slow and ungracious death, but its also a fantastic tale of betrayal in a world dominated by zombies, and its got a strong erotic element to it. It's a big book, but for me, it went fast. Couldn't put it down, as a matter of fact.

It's going to be impossible to do this plot any justice here, so suffice it to say that The Unselfish Gene has a character driven plot, and the characters are strong. Eleven or so years before the era of the book the Earth was ravaged by a virulent form of the bird flu. Most of the population was killed outright, and pretty quickly, by a form of the virus called Hi-Path ("P" for pathogenic). Many of the survivors however were infected with another form of the virus called Lo-Path, which burned all the marbles out of their heads, and created the shambling masses that are now called zombies. Not undead, but certainly not really living, the zombies could move in quick bursts, and frequently did when they needed to catch some unwary human for dinner.

OK. That is one disaster, but pay attention because there is more coming. The human colony on the Moon was unaffected by the bird flu, of course, but the survivors on Luna were not really doing very well. Cut off from Earth for so long the Lunar citizens were suffering greatly from micro-gravity, radiation, poor diet and a lack of medical care. Most of them had some sort of psychological pathology from one or more of those causes, and the society had morphed to a paternalistic form of monarchy where the educated ruled the uneducated, and advanced degrees, rather than land, were passed down through devise from parent to child. The Moon had just launched a mission to Earth to gather all the supplies that the lunar colony would need to survive until they could repopulate the Earth. Unfortunately some wackos decided that any mission to preserve the humans and allow them to repopulate Earth was wrong in the eyes of God, so they bombed one of the two ships in the caravan to the mother planet and killed all but nine of the crew. Faced with certain failure the crew wanted to turn around and head for Luna, but the Regents who ran the place told them to continue; Earth was several weeks away from a comet impact by a 35-mile wide mountain of rock called Kali, and once that thing hit, absolutely nothing on Earth would survive, not even grass or cockroaches.

So, the heat was on, but that was not the end of the problems. The adventure took a turn when one of the crew, a mostly naked, well armed and busty psychopath, decided that Earth needed to be given back to nature, and mankind needed to be stopped. Oh, and their contact on Earth, a rogue geneticist whose husband was a zombie who managed to keep his higher brain functions, forced them to accept her mutated, space adapted children (they had arms for legs and hands for feet, and grew calcium at a rate that offset any detriment from living in low gravity) and take them back to the Moon.

Despite all of this the plot was clean, and very few loose ends were left at the end. Burns took care to keep the action directed, and while the chapters were modular, they fit together nicely. He did tend to jump around from time to time, and skipped some of the action, though it feels like those omissions were at the request of an editor. Burns characters were decent enough. The main characters, Kristen, the ship's doctor and Olsen, the pilot were the best developed of them all. Both had psychological issues to work out; Kristen was massively depressed and Olsen was a loner with self confidence issues, and although these psychological issues played a role in the beginning of the story, Burns kind of abandoned the hobbling effect that they had as the story progressed. But as I read I accepted the changes. Kristen and Olsen were back on Earth in real air, they were falling in love, and doing an important job. Not only that but they became the parental figures for the rest of the surviving crew, and had a lot of sex where before they had virtually none. Personally I can see pathologies slipping away in those circumstances. As for other characters, Burns made the decision to give a big cast in this big book, and while nobody got the short-shrift, some character development had to be sacrificed. I would have really liked to see more development of the Astro-Children. Those were the 18 or so "children" of Marguerite and Frances (Frances being the zombie with his wits about him). With all the pathology that had developed in humans on the Moon since the plague those children were supposed to be the saviors of mankind. Mutated and different, and guaranteed to be controversial, but saviors nonetheless. Burns also introduced an idea around the sudden and abrupt evolution of the species, kind of like in Darwin's Radio, then failed to my satisfaction to wrap that particular thread up at the end. (NOTE: It turned out to be a ruse; The couple was using a device called a "genetic sequencer" to make the children, or were bringing embryos to term in the bellies of infected mothers - I was never sure which. But still, it would have been nice if the author had explored that idea a bit more, because he did a pretty good job with all the others).

I also would have liked to see the altruistic themes worked up a bit more. The title of the book suggests that altruism is a major theme, and that is what I expected going in, and while Burns did not ignore the issue, he did not really work it up as much as I had hoped. The genetic theory of altruism holds that when an individual sacrifices himself for the survival of another person, particularly one who is a family member and shares a common genetic heritage, what he really is doing is promoting the longevity of his own genes by helping identical or similar genes in another body to reproduce: In other words, an unselfish act really is a selfish one. The theory also holds that if the person who sacrificed himself does not have a similar genetic pattern as the one who is saved he is still helping himself, as the person so saved will pay the favor back by helping along the family and kids of the he who has sacrificed. It was a controversial theory when it first came out, and in recent years it has been talked about a great deal again. In fact I took an entire law school course on it my third year; the year they where the administration generally struggles mightily to find courses for us to take to satisfy state bar requirements. That's not to say that I disbelieve the theory; I just think that most of the time a person does altruistic things for direct benefits, like sex or notoriety, both of which by the way are keys to longevity of sorts

Burns here confused me with his use of this theme. One of his characters, Olsen, was at the start of the story a fat, horny curmudgeon who had a lot of trouble seeing any good, or even any usefulness, in other people. He did his job, but he was constantly scheming to screw someone, and frequently contemplated stealing the ship, the Anita Ekberg, and fleeing to the largely unknown belt colonies where he could live out his life away from the disenfranchisement and boredom that defined his Lunar life. But over the course of the novel Olsen fell in love with a beauty half his age, who loved him back, then made a child with her. The two also stepped in loco parentis to a hoard of new children that boarded the ship before Kali struck, and also to Jorge, another crewmember and his newfound love, Hannah, from Earth. Olsen's entire perspective changed, very gradually and very believably, over the course of the story, and at the end Olsen even contemplated his own sacrifice to save Kristen from Gayle, the psychopath who wanted everyone to die so that the Earth would one day spring back without a plague of humans on it. The problem was that Burns writing of Olsen's embrace of the usefulness of his sacrifice was so subtle that it was anti-climactic, and paled in comparison to the action of the climax.

There are a few other items worth comment here. As I read this book it became an exercise in that most archaic of critical activates: Influence spotting. This one, I think, is pretty full of other pop-culture, horror, and SF influences. I should say that it has some similarities to David Wellington's Monster trilogy, though I would categorize that as parallel development, and not so much direct influence, though I could be wrong about that. I also spotted Larry Niven, Dr. Strangelove, Greg Bear, George Romero, Danny Boyle, Freddy Krueger, and a whole host of other zombie movies in this one. As a matter of fact the Lunar citizens have an appropriate saying: "In space, nothing ever happens, so you watch a lot of videos." This book is peppered with references to all kinds of movies. Most of the references are fairly obvious, and when a character saw some similarity between the plot of this book and something from a movie they had a habit of saying, sarcastically, "I've seen this movie before." It must have been uttered dozens of times in the book, but it stayed funny the whole way through. All in all I would call this book a success: As a first book, probably a mighty success. There were a few places where it dipped into the world of preposterousness (yes, even in the zombie subgenre there is a line that should not be crossed, lest "credibility" be lost) but not by too much.

This is an illustrated volume as well, and the simple sketches really added a lot to the story.

Copyright 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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