by Melissa Conway
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
Science fiction is hard to get right. I should know, a couple of months back I thought I'd have a bash at a science fiction story. Four thousand words in, I had a read through of what I had written. It wasn't pretty. Other than my Kindle, I'm not into technology in a big way and I had clearly struggled coming up with futuristic technologies. For some reason, my attempt at futuristic dialogue left all my characters sounding like Cockney wideboys and my vision of a futuristic society amounted to little better than “Star Wars” without the lightsabers.
I was surprised that Booksquawk's very own Master-Chief, Melissa Conway, had written a science fiction novel. Look at her profile picture – she looks so damn wholesome! I was under the impression that science fiction writers had to be bearded, overweight and balding. Melissa looks like the sort to be writing healthy living cookbooks or novels about talking woodland critters. More surprising was the fact that the novel, “Xenofreak Nation”, was a gritty near-future thriller about biotechnological body-enhancements.
A near-future setting is always a risky move. It has the tendency to go out of date quicker than an open jar of mayonnaise. Ridley Scott's “Blade Runner” is set in 2019 – just eight years away and as yet, there's no sign of flying cars or Daryl Hannah pleasure-replicants. Melissa Conway's tale is set in 2032 and whilst there is some funky technology floating around in the story such as holophones and nanoneurons, there isn't anything totally implausible. This isn't ten thousand years in the future or a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. This is earth just a few years from now and this convincing near-future manages to be both immersive and chilling.
The plot revolves around the futuristic fashion of Xenoaugmentation. Think of a tattoo but with the body parts of cloned animals instead of ink. The Xenofreaks sport anything from cow's ears to retractable claws to a full-on wolf face transplant. Needless to say, there's more than a few people who disapprove of these unconventional body modifications and most of the Xenofreaks find themselves ostracised from regular society.
The heroine of the novel is Bryn Vega, a teenage girl whose father leads the conservative Pure Human Society. Her father's outspoken views on Xenoaugmentation make Bryn a target for XBestia, a militant Xenofreak group. They kidnap Bryn and operate on her against her will – transplanting porcupine quills where her hair once was. However, Bryn makes a discovery about her father which indicates that he was in some way connected to her kidnapping. Having nobody to turn to, she finds herself back in the company of the Xenofreaks and forms a close relationship with one of her kidnappers. But Scott Harding, the mysterious man known in XBestia as Cougar has a secret of his own, one that could endanger both their lives.
The plot moves along at a good pace and the author handles the action sequences with both energy and style. Readers who shy away from gunfights and brawling needn't worry as Conway creates a great undercurrent of sexual tension between Bryn and the enigmatic Scott.
Good science fiction isn't just about cool technology. The best sci-fi writers have always used the medium to raise serious questions, both political and moral. Conway's future of cloned-animal skin-grafts is an intriguing one. The Xenoaugmentation can be seen as a possible successor to body-piercing or tattooing but also an indictment of how new technologies with a genuine potential to do good can be embraced by fashion and lose sight of their original purpose. At the same time, Conway shows us a world struggling to come to terms with this cutting-edge technology. You've got the Xenofreaks themselves, harmless fashion-victims for the most part but a minority of them have been radicalised by the terrorist group XBestia. Opposing them are the political movements such as The Pure Human Society, the animal rights activists and the XIA – a branch of the police dedicated to seeking out the militant Xenofreaks. Conway skilfully juggles all these factions and creates a splendidly paranoid atmosphere where the reader, like Bryn, is never sure of who can be trusted.
“Xenofreak Nation” is a tightly plotted, gripping thriller. Its near-future setting makes it accessible enough for those who don't normally read science fiction and it is as entertaining as it is intelligent. The protagonist is not just a believable character but also a very likeable one. We find ourselves genuinely caring for the innocent, often naïve Bryn and her vulnerability makes following her adventure all the more exciting. Best of all, the fact that the book's full title is “Xenofreak Nation: Book One” gives me hope that there will be a sequel. Let's hope Melissa Conway doesn't keep us waiting too long.