by Lewis Perdue
Posted: October 3, 2003
People's anxiety about the misuse of genetic technologies and bioterrorism provides a timely backdrop for a new novel about a virus programmed to kill Koreans living in Japan. In Slatewiper, Lewis Perdue has imagined a disease whose victims are targeted by the genes they carry. The result is an entertaining if overwrought thriller that has plenty of carnage and some genetic detective work.
The novel's starring virus is dubbed Slatewiper presumably for its ability to wipe out entire populations. This “retrovirus” invaded our ancestors' DNA but luckily mutated into a harmless version, leaving behind only a genetic fossil.
Once reactivated, however, the virus takes over a cell and makes more copies of itself until the cell bursts in an impressive splash of blood.
And that's not the only splash on these pages. Throughout the novel, supporting characters fall right and left, dying ghastly deaths. Graphic violence, crass sexuality and sometimes a combination of both give this thriller the sheen of a hyperactive videogame.
The novel opens with a gruesome scene in Tokyo, Japan, where a mysterious epidemic is sending Koreans to the hospitals. The descriptions are not for the weak of stomach, nor for readers who value subtlety. Within two pages, the “remains of the dead” are being scooped up, and the next thing we know Good and Evil are facing off as represented by clashing Japanese and American doctors.
The second chapter whisks readers to Washington, D.C., where our heroine, Lara Blackwood, genetic engineering whiz and presidential advisor, is driving through a hostile crowd as GMO tomatoes strike her windshield.
A series of sinister events leaves Blackwood unemployed and locked out of her lab, where she had developed treatments for diseases associated with specific ethnic groups. Suspicious that her research has been appropriated for no good, she turns her attention to the mysterious Tokyo outbreak.
Sensing what's going on, Blackwood warns the press, “If we can develop a pharmaceutical that targets a specific DNA sequence identified with a particular ethnic group then it's theoretically possible to develop a killing agent that operates the same way.”
While these DNA sequences are not directly linked to racial traits, they are common among groups of people that have lived together and intermarried for many generations.
Blackwood's biggest fear is soon staring her in the face. Following a trail of clues to Tokyo, she discovers that a corporate mogul, Tokutaro Kurata, is trying to restore racial purity to the Japanese people by wiping out the local Koreans.
Kurata has cooked up a virus with the help of an international network of scientists and stolen research. He uses genetic sequences to activate only in Koreans the dormant virus found in every person's genome.
The theme of racial strife becomes heavy-handed as Blackwood learns more about Kurata's past as a kamikaze pilot in World War II. Perdue writes in his acknowledgments that Slatewiper is about how people allow themselves to be “divided by race.” But the idea that the book might somehow counter racism is undercut by his portrayal of the Japanese.
The Japanese characters on these pages are one-dimensional vessels of nationalism and xenophobia. Only one sympathetic Japanese protagonist exists, and he was conspicuously educated in California .
Furthermore, the implication that only a Western influence can reform Japan is at cross-purposes with Perdue's critique of cultures that assume superiority over others.
But as bodies putrefy and enemy compounds explode, you won't be turning the pages to see if the characters bridge the cultural divide. You'll want to know if Blackwood can hang on as a helicopter lifts her to safety or whether the virus been sold to warmongers in the Middle East .
For those with a hardy stomach and a lust for adventure, Slatewiper may provide an enjoyable ride.
Merete Rietveld is a freelance writer who lives in Los Angeles, California.