Plague Birds by Jason Sanford
Apex Publications (274 pages, $16.95 paperback/$6.99 eBook, Sept 21, 2021)
Cover by Marcela Bolívar
I remember not long ago when CRISPR was on the tip of a lot of people’s tongues, among science fiction writers as well as the general public. Obviously we’re focused on other topics in science and medicine right now, but sooner or later people will come back to asking whether gene editing should be allowed, what should be permissible, and the possibilities if this branch of science is allowed to run unchecked.
Jason Sanford deals with that last point in Plague Birds, by jumping ahead thousands of years after a total societal collapse caused in part by conflict between genetically modified humans. The set-up and frame here is pretty cool: millennia after this collapse, humans live in isolated settlements and mostly stay away from each other, protected by AIs that are gradually weeding out the “crisper” inside their DNA. We get to see a lot of how the world has changed, but the real focus is on Crista, a young woman forced to become one of the “plague birds” who essentially root out the most heinous wrongdoers among the settlements – though it often isn’t a simple job.
Crista’s relationship with her AI, Red Day, reminds me a lot of Eddie Brock and Venom – particularly the way they snipe at each other, with Crista resisting Red Day’s more vicious side and Red Day joking about letting her fall off a mountain after she bothers him. Their back and forth is the most human element in a novel that feels more idea-driven than character-driven, as people try to survive or resist a world undergoing a sort of self-repair. The constant presence of AIs that can keep you from noticing someone you just tripped over or shelter you from your baser instincts adds a darker surrealness to the whole thing, too. The idea of having no control over your perception comes up a lot, in ways that would freak out my senior Social Studies class.
Something I can’t decide how I feel about is an element of Crista’s backstory, specifically being physically assaulted by her neighbor/ex-lover before the events of the novel. How it’s used for character motivation and plot isn’t something I’m in a position to properly judge, but I feel is worth mentioning.
That said, Sanford’s tight narrative style and Plague Bird’s blend of weird science and dark fantasy are probably unlike a lot of other things you’ve read. Idea fiction isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if it’s yours then this is worth picking up.
An Ottawa teacher by day, Brandon has been published in On Spec, Pulp Literature, THIS Magazine, and elsewhere. His latest story “Soulmark” (about selling your soul and rock ‘n’ roll) appears in issue #7 of Fusion Fragment. You can follow Brandon at brandoncrilly.wordpress.com or on Twitter: @B_Crilly.