Reviewed by Simon Petrie (this review was first published in February 2008)
If there was ever a time when it was justifiable to assert that science fiction is only, or even primarily, about wish-fulfilment and escapism (and let’s say, for argument’s sake, that there was), then that time has passed. Anyone who finds this statement difficult to accept should be encouraged, as politely but persistently as possible, to read Chris Lawson’s scalpel-sharp collection of stories and essays, published in 2003 but likely to remain current and relevant for years to come.
Written in Blood is plainly not your standard single-author collection of science fiction stories. For one thing, it’s a volume with a liberal sprinkling of non-fiction content, drawn from Lawson’s Frankenblog site. (Lawson is an incisive and erudite blogger, with Frankenblog now apparently superceded by his Talking Squid site.) For another, it opens not with a biographical introduction, but with the transcript of an interview with Lawson, conducted by Simon Brown. I found the introduction interesting for Lawson’s assertion that he is not a scientist because he is not actively involved in research, an assertion with which I disagree. Lawson’s background, training, and evident deep understanding of the scientific method undermine his own argument, as does the rigour of his reasoning. If nothing else, through the careful literature research required for construction of his non-fiction pieces, Lawson undeniably qualifies as a practitioner of science, regardless of the origin of his paycheck. (Was Stephen Jay Gould a scientist? Is Dawkins? Lawson is a science writer as accomplished, if less widely distributed).
“Chinese Rooms” is an excellent opening story, in which the underlying tale hides beneath layers of metaphor and explanation. The Chinese Room of the title is a philosophical construct, analogous to Schrödinger’s cat-in-the-box, designed to illuminate the gap between functional execution of a task and the understanding of that task. It would be easy for a story of this type to be overpowered by infodump, but Lawson adroitly dodges that potential pitfall.
“Unborn Again”, in which a customs official interviews an asylum inmate over an unexplained prion infection, is a nearly perfect short story, juxtaposing science fiction speculation with real-world barbarity in a particularly chilling manner.
“Lacey’s Fingerprints” suffers through comparison with the two preceding tales. Ostensibly a murder mystery (though, as always with these things, the more interesting twists are to be encountered among those still living), it’s a readable and engaging work in its own right; but it doesn’t sear the reader’s consciousness to the same extent, it doesn’t carry the same weight of need and dread.
“Matthew 24:36”, Lawson’s Y2K story, also lacks the fevered intensity of the first two stories, though it works well enough. Erwin, a survivalist husband and father, waits with his family as the millennium turns over, and as the world crumbles and burns… Here, as elsewhere in the collection, Lawson shows a generally understated empathy with characters of widely different beliefs and worldviews.
“Faster, Higher, Stronger” is an exploration of the issue of drugs in athletics. Ty Mercurio is a runner, under pressure to perform to a superhuman standard, and to adopt the biochemical regime that will allow him to attain this standard. It’s an effective, moving piece which hasn’t yet lost its currency, nor looks likely to any time soon.
Written in Blood sounds, from the title, as though it should be a zombie gore-fest. But Lawson writes exclusively about characters with brains, and “Blood” is in actuality a prescient pre-9/11 story of anti-Muslim sentiment and prejudice in Australia, seen through the eyes of Zada, a Muslim girl whose father agrees to an experimental procedure of “bloodwriting”, coding the white blood cells of his body with a translation, in redundant DNA, of the text of the Qur’an. It’s one of the collection’s stronger stories.
It would be tempting, on first glance, to assume that the non-fiction pieces which are intercalated between the book’s six stories are mere space-fillers, designed to pad out what is ultimately a rather slim volume. But the non-fiction here earns its keep: with the possible exception of “The Standard Book of Alchymical Elements” (a three-page riff on what the periodic table might look like if alchemy as a discipline had retained its identity), Lawson’s factual pieces are every bit as taut and engrossing as his fiction. The longest non-fiction pieces, “Evolutionary Pressure on Creationists” and “Your Soothsayers are Better”, cut to the core of the schism between belief and reason, and the problems that ensue when this schism gets papered over.
All up, this is a collection as weighty as it is slender. It offers an excellent introduction to Lawson’s writing, and several of the stories within deserve to be acknowledged as classics of Australian science fiction. Each story is informed in some manner by Lawson’s wide understanding of medicine, biochemistry, and human nature, and the sometimes awkward, sometimes disastruous application of knowledge. “Unborn Again” is probably the story I found most affecting, but it has some serious competition. My one real gripe would be that the stories are presented in a typeface so small it may induce eye-strain in some readers; but this can’t ultimately detract from the solidity, depth and precision of Lawson’s prose.