Rating: 4.6 out of 5
Science fiction many times comes down to en exploration of what it means to be human. When done well, it serves as an organic metaphor, breaking down the societal systems we exist within and revealing, through conflict, the best and worst of us. Sometimes it shows how far we’ve fallen, how our creations have ended up stealing a bit of our souls, bringing us to the brink of becoming slaves to that which we’ve created or, worst of all, regressing into a form of pre-humanity that is both untrustworthy and violent. In other instances, these works allow humanity to rise above, to demonstrate the goodness and ingenuity we all know is possible. And then, we have those works of literature that accomplishes both. It takes a talented author to break through this final barrier, to approach their concepts with an innate balance that shows good and bad, hurtful and helpful, and brings us out on the other side with at least a modicum of hope.
With The Venom of Vipers, K.C. May has proven herself to be in that rare class.
This is the story of humanity on the brink of extinction. A terrible new plague has gripped the globe, called moliomyositis (or molio for short). It is a disease for which there is no cure, and science has, in a way, resigned itself to the possibility that humans will cease to exist over the span of only a few short decades. To combat this, they have created a new human subspecies by splicing human and reptilian DNA. The resulting life-forms, dubbed Saphers, are immune to the virus, but they offer no magical solution to the outbreak. One might ask, if there is no help to be found from them, why did we create them in the first place and why are we keeping them alive? The answer to this I found most interesting, and philosophically poignant: to bring about a species that will carry on after we’re gone, to have the memory of our existence, our legacy, live on through them and, just maybe, they’ll progress enough to bring humanity – regular humanity – back some day.
There is one problem with this theory, however. The Saphers can’t breed on their own. When they try, the females’ bodies reject the fetus before seven weeks is up. For a genus designed to carry on our legacy, this is obviously a huge problem.
Enter Katie Marsh, the daughter of the man behind the creation of the Saphers. As the story opens, she is returning to the center she grew up in. She is now a reproductive scientist, and she’s been added to the team in hopes of finding a solution to the Sapher reproduction “problem”. Her presence inside the facility is a tension builder in and of itself, for Saphers aren’t considered viable people by the government, and she’s had a lifelong relationship with one of them – albeit (mostly) plutonic. The character in question is a hotheaded yet supremely bright and protective Sapher male named Ryder Storm. (Ignore the soap opera name. It might be clunky at first, but after a while it grows on you.) Their relationship, revealed expertly through tiny bits of flashback and simple character interaction, drive the story. This is a pair you can root for, even if Katie doesn’t seem to realize at first how much they mean to each other.
There are so many conflicting plot points in this book. You have the disease wiping out the globe. You have the issue of failed reproduction. Yet even greater than that are the conflicts that occur outside the written word – we’re told about them, but don’t necessarily see examples until the very end. There are two warring factions fighting over the imprisoned Saphers. One is the Freedom for All Peoples, an organization much like PETA, who wants science to stop experimenting on the poor saphers and grant them human rights. The other is the Human Purification Initiative, a bunch of nearsighted bastards who want nothing more than to see these “perversions of science” wiped off the face of the earth. The opposing groups are examples of extremism. The fact is, both sides have a point, but they’re too obsessive to look at what’s going on around them with any sort of clarity. There needs to be a balance in all ideas, and May does a fantastic job of showing how unbalanced – and henceforth unstable – these people are.
Add to this a plot point where some of the guards at the center, who themselves have fallen to be less than human, scheme behind the scenes and pull off some rather perverse (actually, downright evil) acts, and you have a story so rife with drama and conflict that you want to hurry up and get to the next page, just to see if any of it gets resolved.
This book is such a satisfying read. It was emotional at times – especially when it comes to Ryder and his daughter – and the way author May delves deep into the subjects of sensuality, doubt, and survival instinct are fantastic. The characters – especially Katie and the chief guard, Nelson – are wonderfully fleshed out and believable. Ryder, who is a man of thirty who’s never been outside the walls of the foundation he grew up in and desires the freedom that’s been preached to him but never delivered, is successfully not presented as a cartoonish good guy. The way the author inserts snippets of morose metaphysical ponderings in to the text (Does humanity deserve to be saved? Do we have the right to play God? Are we fooling ourselves to think we’ve risen above our most base animal instincts?) is fantastic. I found myself wondering much the same things as I was reading, and I realized that the Saphers, themselves, were almost mirror for the people who cared for them. They feel the pain of losing a child, while their human captors treat them as just another failed experiment. To the guards, they’re annoyances and sexual playthings, while they experience every moment of hurt and torment levied upon them.
Humanity is the monster, and humanity’s creation is more human than we are. It’s a common thread in science fiction, and here it’s done beautifully.
I had only a couple problems with this book, and they’re small, at that. One was the dialogue. At the beginning, it’s stilted, as if the author couldn’t get a grasp on a free-flowing conversation. This ends after a very short time, however, and doesn’t miss a beat again for the rest of the book. The other is the (SPOILER ALERT) solution to the reproduction problem. It comes about by the end, but I didn’t understand the explanation for how it was accomplished. This may simply be my own problem, however, so I won’t let it hurt the rating much at all, and it shouldn’t effect anyone’s enjoyment of the story.
In all, I had a very, very good time with The Venom of Vipers. It’s a poignant and fast-paced melding of science fiction, drama, and mystery. KC May solidifies herself as a writer to look out for in the future. She has something to say, she’s not afraid to say it, and she’s damn good at telling her story.
I highly, highly recommend it.
Plot - 9
Characters - 10
Voice - 9
Execution - 8
Personal Enjoyment – 10
Overall – 46/50 (4.6/5)
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