Sci-fi sagas explore implications of gene-tinkering; Fireflood and Other Stories, by Vonda N. McIntyre. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $10.95
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 restructured to work as a miner on Mars: She is 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.
Some of the stories are weaker than others, laboratory experiments in which the author's attempt is to explore a particular biological invention or human remake.
Many stories, however -- 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 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 foresight. 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 story including such grim details is also one of her more touching pieces: 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 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 developd. Her "artificial" humanity has transcended her oppressors' "normality."
In other stories Mcintyre finds more uses for this same resolution. Compassion, carefully wrought friendships, courage, and empathy emerge where genetic fences would try to separate unimaginably different beings for old, familiar reasons -- youth and age, beauty and deformity. McIntyre has a knack for portraying outlooks that seem plausibly suited to a future time. Her characters go beyond derring-do; they evolve and change in response to an unpredictable new world.
With one exception, a comedy, the pieces in "Fireflood" are poignant. The language is lyrical 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.