Syne Mitchell,
The Changeling Plague
(Roc, 2003)

Syne Mitchell graduated from college at 15. She went on to a master's in solid-state physics and now works as a web developer. That's a great background for a science-fiction author, especially if hard science is to be an important part of her work. The Changeling Plague demonstrates the benefits as she adds enough detail to the computer-related portion of her story to make it seem almost plausible.

Hackers breaking into top-secret government computers in 5 or 10 minutes have become more than a little cliched, but Mitchell requires less suspension of belief than, say, Gibson, because she provides more authentic technical detail. When the story concentrates on the genetics of the title's plague, it starts off in a similarly convincing fashion. Mitchell has a real knack for describing complex biochemical processes clearly.

The Changeling Plague introduces us to Dr. Lillith Watkins, who works at the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC is informed of scattered outbreaks of a virus that modifies DNA and causes unpredictable but almost always fatal results. Dr. Watkins soon suspects the virus is related to work she had done earlier in her career, work that had been terminated as part of a worldwide ban on viral engineering.

The virus is the unintended side effect of a cure for cystic fibrosis illegally funded by Geoffrey Allen, a rich young man who has the disease. He has unwittingly precipitated a plague. A hacker helps Dr. Watkins uncover Geoffrey's role and the scientist he has funded.

Although plot details are at first based on solid science, as the story goes on the technical feats her characters perform get closer and closer to magic. It becomes impossible to continue to believe in what's happening. Even with the computer simulations and rapid DNA mapping the book assumes, understanding gene and protein interactions well enough to nail the DNA changes Mitchell describes would take decades rather than the weeks or months it takes here. Some doubt it will ever be possible. So the science at the beginning doesn't keep the last half of the book from seeming like fantasy, and the mix doesn't work very well. Similarly, the characters are at first promising but fail to develop. As perspectives switch the plot is furthered without increasing our understanding of personalities and motivations.

Syne Mitchell is a talented young writer and her earlier books have gotten good reviews. This one has its moments and is worth a read, but in the end seems overly contrived. Maybe next time.

- Rambles
written by Ron Bierman
published 10 May 2003

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