What worries science-fiction writer Vonda McIntyre about genetic engineering is not just the possible creation of alien microbes -- it's the loneliness of the human spirit caught in biological traps.
In "Fireflood and Other Stories" McIntyre explores a world of futuristic technologies built out of flesh and psyche -- instead of "Star Wars" electronics.For example, in the title story the central character is a woman physiologically reconstructed so that she is adapted to mining on Mars: She has become a clawed, armor-plated, slow-breathing body with a human inside. In another story, "Aztec," a woman preparing to pilot spacecraft on flights of many light-years has her circulatory system replaced with a mechanism invulnerable to time-induced deterioration.
Taken separately, some stories in this collection are weaker than others. They seem to be laboratory experiments in themselves -- the author's attempt to explore a particular biological invention or human remake.
Other stories -- notably "The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn," "Screwtop," "The Genius Freaks," as well as "Aztec" -- achieve an effect all too rare in science fiction: Instead of merely portraying cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers in outer space, they describe true human encounters, characters who grow in dramatic situations.
Taken together, as variations on a theme, the stories offer startling foresights. McIntyre pushes the debate about laboratory experiments with recombinant DNA into a new dimension: She describes people isolated on genetic islands of intellectual, physiological, and technical specialization, and the grotesque mistakes possible to mere humans trying to invent better humans.
Some readers may find some details too vivid for their taste, so clinical are McIntyre's portrayals. Yet one of her more touching stories includes such grim details. In "Genius Freaks" a woman born in a test tube, especially bred to perform highly complex studies, tries to escape from her creators. She is running from the "spiritually cold" world of the lab, and because of a mistake in her generation of geniuses she is susceptible to disease in a world where gene cleansing has brought a kind of immortality through immunity.
Trying to elude her keepers, she finds refuge with an old man -- a sad and normal human who is so childlike in his submissiveness that he draws forth her pity. In responding to him she discovers in herself some of the humanity she believed had been bred out of her. As one of her last acts, she uses her special brilliance, not to injure her creators, but to complete the research for which she was developed. Her "artificial" humanity has transcended her oppressors' "normality."
With the exception of one delightfully humorous version of the familiar consumer-against-the computer story, the pieces in "Fireflood" are poignant -- several are love stories, not all are boy meets girl. The language is lyric no matter how bizarre the subject or outlandish the land. The collection is a kind of mythology -- Olympus legends for the future. After reading these myths, would-be Prometheans might not wish to steal fire from the gods.