Young government scientist David Neale finds his life crumbling in a media firestorm after an unauthorized, after-hours experiment in human reproduction goes awry.
Willis flirts with the medical thriller formula in his debut, but instead of car/helicopter chases and sinister foreign assassins in darkened hospital high-rise parking garages, he puts a human-interest emphasis on all the plot threads more commercial potboilers leave out—the daily upheavals in the personal lives of researchers and families caught up in scandal after an unorthodox, unauthorized experiment. Neale, working for the National Institutes of Health in Alexandria, Virginia, has two kids and an unhappy wife. Caught up in visions of career glory and success, he had been drawn by two older colleagues into a rogue off-site experiment implanting surrogate mothers with primate cytoplasm. The goal was to trim the length and discomfort of human pregnancy by two months. But the experiment went wrong, leaving two dead mutant infants with Island of Dr. Moreau attributes (not dwelt upon in any horror-fiction detail). Ambitious young news reporter Mary Murphy stumbles across the fresh crime scene and tries to use David’s involvement as her springboard into big-time journalism. Local police detectives, lawyers, and politicians also smell career opportunities as the investigation becomes a national cause célèbre. Readers may find it either provocative or frustrating that there are few obvious villains in the traditional sense, little gee-whiz science-fiction speculation, and no race against time. David, meanwhile, remains a largely passive and somewhat pathetic protagonist, batted about by the morass of legal, ethical, and religious quandaries he has unwittingly unleashed. A question mark even hangs over whether he will ever learn his lesson (especially with conniving reporters). One can argue that in sacrificing facile action scenes, Willis makes the readers (particularly those with a fondness for Virginia place names and settings) think for themselves about judgments and consequences.
A mild, cautionary tale about science ethics that sidesteps expected pulp-action clichés.
As climate change turns the United States into a storm-ravaged swamp in the late 21st century, three sets of refugees attempt an unauthorized border crossing into Canada in Willis’ (Deadly Highway, 2018, etc.) post-apocalyptic tale.
In 2086, most of Florida and New Orleans no longer exist thanks to rising sea levels. Georgia swells with homeless people, and waves of migrants struggle north to Canada, where right-wingers in the Ottawa government have tried locking down the border. Texas, a fetid bayou, is where the Wilkins family dwells, safe but discontented in domed, bleak corporate oil-company housing. They’re surprised when beer-drinking, abusive patriarch Frank Wilkins agrees to leave for Canada for a fresh start; in truth, he just wants to rejoin his younger mistress, who moved there. Divorced Savannah accountant Harry Sykes, his house ruined in a hurricane, embezzles from a disaster relief fund so that he and his college-age son can flee north. In corrupt Chicago, Cynthia “Cyndie” Sherwood is the pampered but fed-up trophy wife of a successful but philandering lawyer. Using his ties to the migrant-smuggling underworld, she joins a transport with her disgruntled, adolescent daughter in tow. The narrative brings the entire ensemble together for a harrowing exploit. In plainspoken and quietly unnerving language, Willis effectively gives weight even to minor characters and sometimes manages to jolt readers with unexpected revelations. Readers who are looking for future-tech thrills or creatively envisioned ruins in an apocalyptic-dystopic milieu may be disappointed, though; aside from subcutaneous identification chips, self-driving autos, drones, and roll-up pocket computers, the sci-fi gimmickry quickly falls away. Instead, this is an elemental drama of fairly ordinary, often uncouth people on an arduous, quavering journey, pushed to their limits and crossing boundaries—of nations, of laws, of morality—for the sake of survival or just plain selfishness.
An exceptional story of the future that quietly sounds an alarm about extremities of human behavior.