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Book cover art by Stephen Youll.
Review © 2003 by Thomas M. Wagner.
AUTHOR'S SITE | View Large Cover

[This review contains mild spoilers.]

Clade is an absorbing debut that, were it not for some unfortunate holes in plot logic, would have been a genre groundbreaker on the order of the best works by Mark Budz' most obvious influences, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (with a pinch of Phil Dick for good measure). If Neuromancer was the shot heard round the world that SF's tech revolution had begun, Clade is the equally loud shot giving notice that cyberpunk is, in 2003, as well and truly dead as Flash Gordon. Science has marched on. Gibson and the other cyberpunks envisioned a cumbersome, clunky future where people walked around with SCSI ports in their heads and everything was still silicon and machine intelligence. In Clade, Mark Budz puts the highest of hi-tech directly into our molecules, the very air we breathe. Biotech is the only tech that matters anymore.

Budz' premise is a humdinger. In the near-ish future, an environmental disaster called the Ecocaust (sweet!) has led to rising sea levels and all the concomitant additional strains on human resources. But though civilization gets back on its feet, it does so at the expense of past freedoms. Governments and corporations merge into "politicorps". A new class system has been introduced through the wonders of biotech. Human beings have been socially engineered at the molecular level through a process called "clading," through which entire socioeconomic or ethnic groups are made to be biologically predisposed to live in particular communities and not others. Enter a community for which you have not been claded and the consequences could be sickness or (in extreme cases) death.

In a sense, this can be seen as not intentionally racist, classist or oppressive, as the motive is to enable all segments of the populace to have a chance to thrive under circumstances that have made maintaining a rigid, artificial sense of balance a survival necessity (and if need be, a person can be re-claded). But of course, old human habits die hard. In a sharp bit of satire, Budz even has businesses and retail outlets using clading technology to keep away the riffraff; certain stores will simply lock out clientele below a certain prosperity level. Naturally, a thriving black market exists enabling people to buy just the right biotech to inhibit the "pherions" in their systems, or indeed to create their own clades. Budz informs us that a clade can be as few as two people, and around 2000 clades exist in the world at large.

Budz relates all of this with a kind of kinetic language that may at times be a little too reminiscent of Gibson stylistically. But since Budz drew me in his world so effectively I didn't hold the familiarity against him.

The protagonist is Rigo, a Latino originally from the San Jose clade who is trying to move up in the world. He's secured a job at a biotech firm developing special vegetation for a planned orbital colony. Rigo's former friends from San Jose look upon his "selling out" with undisguised contempt. But he maintains a close relationship to his ailing mother, lawless brother (for whom Rigo sometimes runs black market errands), and troubled girfriend, Anthea.

After a dodgy moment at work when Rigo fears that a tear in his biosuit has exposed him to dangerous pherions from the plants they are developing, he finds to his surprise that the company in charge of the colony is accelerating the colony's startup and intends to move some of the plants up into orbit immediately. And they want Rigo to supervise the transfer. But something about the haste seems fishy to Rigo. Meanwhile, Anthea, a child welfare counselor, has a unique problem of her own. A lost boy has come into her care, who seems to have been infected with a "slave pherion," binding him to an unknown locale and for which there seems to be no known antidote to save his life. Who would do such a thing? And why are shadowy human rights groups popping up with more than a casual interest in this child?

A brisk momentum propels you effortlessly as the story's secrets unravel one after another, leading inexorably to tragedy and many revelations. It's so entertaining that it carries you over some hiccups in plotting. For one thing, if I understand the rules of Budz' future correctly, the politicorp conspiracy that soon unspools seems a very illogical way for the bad guys to have gone about their business. I can think of another way they could have achieved their ends, though that would, I suppose, leave us without a story. So it isn't unfair to say the book relies on contrivances to get the story moving along.

Said contrivances play a part in the story's resolution, too. So if you wish to avoid something spoilerish, stop reading now. Rigo — as do most other people in this future — has a little AI sidekick called, sometimes confusingly, an IA (information agent). Imagine if your online-capable PDA could talk to you and you'll get the idea. (Though why Budz felt these IA's had to have such annoying, "quirky" personalities is beyond me.) At a crucial point in the book's final third, Budz writes himself out of a couple of corners by having Rigo's IA, Varda, turn more or less into a deus ex machina, capable of creating Matrix-y virtual realities that Rigo can travel into to solve some key problems. Considering how fresh most of the book had been up to that point, the scene really felt like an unfortunate cheat Budz could have tackled more imaginatively.

But despite these minor nuisances, Clade marks the arrival of an intriguing talent with real potential for taking SF into uncharted territory as his career matures. Followed by Crache.