Science fiction is supposed to be about pushing the boundaries, and coming up with new concepts, but much of the time it simply regurgitates old ideas. And we’re happy with that because those ideas are familiar and comfortable, like a well-worn pair of slippers. We don’t have to think about them, we can just enjoy the entertainment on offer.
And then there are the stories that challenge us too much. Here I’m thinking of China Mieville’s Embassy Town. I enjoyed it, sort of, but I certainly did not understand it, and that left me feeling inadequate.
Halfskin, however, is that happy medium all writers aspire to – a bright, shiny new idea wrapped in the comfort of characters we can relate to, characters who do not so much challenge as persuade. They are not Other, they are like us, and so we can understand their motivation. In fact, most of us would probably agree with their motivation. I know I do.
The story begins with a familiar enough scene – a bunch of young kids getting up to mischief and egging each other on. One of them, Nix, gets cut, and we realise that Nix isn’t bleeding blood, he’s bleeding biomites.
Biomites are the result of bionanotechnology, and act like stem cells, becoming whatever the body needs to function properly. In reality, however, biomites are microscopic computers, and they are all linked wirelessly to a massive computer system dubbed MOther. But MOther, standing for Mitochondria Terraforming Hierarchy of Record, does more than just receive data, it has the ability to monitor the level of biomites present in each and every human body. And when one of those bodies becomes a halfskin – i.e. half flesh, half biomite – MOther has the ability to switch the biomites off.
But if 50% of the functioning of a body is handled by biomites, and they’re suddenly switched off, what happens to the other 50%, the flesh percent?
It dies, that’s what. Enter the villain of the piece, Marcus Anderson.
Marcus Anderson, Chief of the Biomite Oversight Committee, and a ‘pure’ who has no biomites in his body, believes that Halfskins are not human any more. Furthermore, he believes that if biomites are allowed to proliferate unchecked, homo sapiens are doomed. Something will survive the biomite invasion, but it won’t be human any more.
And this is where the persuasion comes in. Because we know that biomites saved the life of young Nix, and make ordinary people ‘better’ than they would be naturally, it’s very easy to empathize with Cali, Nix’s sister as she moves heaven and earth to keep her baby brother from being switched off as a Halfskin. We see being switched off as cruel, and unnecessary. We want Cali and Nix to survive because they are the human face of Halfskins, and they’re still nice people, right?
The delicious thing about Halfskin is that with just a little change of perception, the story could easily become as scary as the old Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Imagine if the biomites were tech gone wrong. Imagine if they took over those they infected …and turned them into zombies!
No matter how much I may dislike Marcus Anderson as a character and a person, I can see the fear that motivates him. Self righteous he may be, but maybe, just maybe he has cause.
Halfskin is just the start of the story, and I for one am very, very curious to see where the author, Tony Bertauski, takes it next. Will he give us his answer? Or will he continue to gently push us to find our own?
Without a doubt, Halfskin is one of the best science fiction stories I’ve read this year, and I’ve read a lot. The writing is smooth and assured, with no awkward sentences or embarrassing typos. The characters too are perfect. As a mother myself, I have no trouble understanding Cali’s fierce protectiveness. Faced with the same circumstances, I know I’d do exactly the same. And even Marcus the Villain isn’t completely two dimensional. Nonetheless, for me, it’s the underlying ethical questions that truly make this story stand apart.
Halfskin – 5/5 and very highly recommended.
p.s. You can buy Halfskin from Amazon as a stand alone book for $3.50 or you can buy is as part of the eleven book Taste of Tomorrow bundle [for 99c].