Review of Invasive Procedures by Orson Scott Card
by Orson Scott Card
Genetics is one of the reasons I'm glad we have science-fiction authors. So far physicists have conspired to make faster-than-light travel impossible (or at least highly impractical), so perhaps we won't be meeting any intelligent alien species any time soon. In the past ten years, however, our understanding of genetics and the human genome has grown considerably. As we become more adept at manipulating our genome, whether it's to cure hereditary diseases or augment healthy genes, we must confront questions that, until recently, were exclusively the domain of science fiction. We will be faced with moral crises as we struggle to define what it means to be human, whether parents should be able to choose fundamental attributes of their children, the lengths to which we will go to make people "better." These are questions without easy answers, and we are damn lucky that there are brave men and women blazing a trail, looking at our options. When considered carefully and thoughtfully, the results are stories like Nothing Human, "Act One", and Lilith's Brood.
When done poorly in the style of a thriller, well, you get Invasive Procedures.
Excuse me while I ascend into my ivory tower of literary elitism, not that I'm here to disparage the quality of thrillers in general or, indeed, engage in any sort of genre-ist bigotry the likes of which has been perpetrated upon my own beloved genres of science fiction and fantasy all too much. I won't lie, however: the title of this book nearly turned me off; I picked it up because it has Orson Scott Card's name on the cover (and it was free), and that is where the good times stopped.
Calling the characters of Invasive Procedures "cardboard" would be an affront to thick paper stock. There is not a single memorable character in this book. The bad guy, George Galen, is a stereotypical discredited scientist who leads a cult and plots to make humanity better even as he ensures his own immortality. The Healers have gone around curing people of incurable genetic diseases through the use of personalized gene therapy. To anyone other than their intended recipient, such therapies manifest as virulent and rapidly-fatal (people die within minutes of being exposed). So the fictitious Biohazard Agency, or BHA, decides it has to take the Healers down. Considering that the director of the BHA becomes one of Galen's brainwashed lackeys, complete with tremors and a penchant for referring to Galen as "the master," you can guess how well that plan goes.
This brainwashing thing really irks me. It strikes me as a very lazy way to turn good guys into antagonists and traitors. Building betrayal, laying the right seeds and creating the proper conditions for treachery, is a complicated business. It must be done subtly enough that it is believable, but obviously enough that when the reader looks back, the clues are all in place. But a solid, well-executed Face Heel Turn is just so rewarding! Brainwashing is the lazy writer's way out. It certainly can be used to great effect sometimes; this book just isn't one of them.
The trouble here with brainwashing is that it removes volition, and without volition, the conflict in the story is meaningless. If Galen just brainwashes his way into power, that is bad, but it isn't very interesting. Betrayal is interesting and dramatic because it is real, because a traitor is responsible for his or actions, whereas a brainwashed saliva addict is not.
This might be forgivable, except that volition—or the lack of it—is a big problem in Invasive Procedures. None of our characters, not even the ones not dropping Galen-spit, seem particularly interested in exercising their free will. Frank Hartman, the "hero" of the book, accomplished his major contribution prior to the story's beginning; he already has a "countervirus" when he joins the BHA. The rest of the book consists of him being manipulated by the lackey-director and demonstrating his intelligence and manliness in front of the heroine/love-interest, Dr. Monica Owens.
Of any of the characters, Monica's situation and motivation is the most acceptable. She becomes Galen's personal surgeon because he kidnaps her young son. That's understandable, I suppose. Card and Johnston don't give us much time to get beyond this most primitive need to protect. They make it clear that the brainwashing victims don't have much choice in the matter, and in a similar way they harp upon Monica's powerlessness. Powerlessness and not having a choice seems to be a big thing in this book. As with all the characters in this book, the narrator presents the basic facts of Monica's life in stark exposition. We learn almost nothing about who she is from what she does, because she does so very little. It's as if the authors are afraid to give their characters anything to do, lest the characters disrupt their precious little plot.
As far as that goes, there is nothing about Invasive Procedures that stands out to recommend it above the average thriller. Card and Johnston never dig deeper than the surface of the issues they raise, totally dashing my hopes that this book would prove any good. To be fair, they deftly manipulate the emotional consequences of the Healers' actions, tugging on heartstrings as we see a young girl suffering from sickle cell anemia. That's all well and good, but it doesn't quite balance against the hackneyed exposition and the horror-movie level bad science: a virus that kills people in minutes, a chip that rewires the brain in seconds to restore the memories of a dead man, not to mention a virus that rewrites Frank's entire genetic code!
I guess what I'm trying to say is that this book, while nominally science fiction, is not good science fiction. It asks Big Questions, but it deigns not to facilitate the Big Discussions that should naturally follow, preferring instead to force its characters to conform to a convoluted, largely unexciting and predictable plot. If you are looking for a creepy book about organ transplantation and rogue gene therapy, this is not it. Likewise, though my experience in this area is lacking, I wouldn't even recommend Invasive Procedures for its thriller qualities.
Of course, it's entirely my own fault for reading it. No one forced me, recommended it to me, or even pointed out its existence. I picked it up off a table because it was looking forlorn, knowing full well that despite Card's name on the cover, it probably wasn't going to be very good. Sometimes books like this surprise me, hence the popular adage discounting prejudice based on the cover. Sometimes books like this don't surprise me. Invasive Procedures fails across the board, with flat characters, a predictable plot, and unsatisfactory science-fictional elements.