White Devils, by Paul McAuley

Better the devils you know...
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The Independent Culture

For thriller aficionados who pride themselves on a keen intelligence, there are few things more pleasurable than picking up a new novel that delivers the requisite adrenalin rush while making the reader feel that he or she has acquired some cutting-edge information. This is a rarer phenomenon than might be expected: many a top thriller writer barely ruffles our cognitive capacities.

Most successful of the "intelligent" thriller writers (who use intriguing scientific concepts in the warp and woof of narrative) is, of course, Michael Crichton. But this country boasts a hidden gem: the former science-fiction writer, Paul McAuley. If his name is known more to SF cognoscenti than the general reader, that situation is on the brink of change.With this new "high-concept" thriller, McAuley has delivered a second novel quite as well turned as his first in the field, Whole Wide World. And he is canny enough not to sideline his trademark scientific expertise when in this multi-layered blockbuster.

White Devils is powered by a fascinating scientific premise. Nicholas Hyde, a charity worker in Africa, is part of a team investigating a wartime atrocity. The team is ambushed and small, preternaturally strong ape-like creatures slaughter most of the group. The team's government observer calls them "white devils" and falls in with the official story, claiming he saw only rebel troops covered in body paint. The cover-up seems to originate inside Obligate, the company that effectively owns the Congo. Nick Hyde refuses to co-operate - and that's when people around him start to die.

McAuley has added a fifth rider to the ranks of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse: Rogue Biotechnology, a menace every bit as lethal as his more experienced co-riders. But Pandora's-Box science is only one of the fish that McAuley is frying here. Along with the expertly orchestrated set-pieces, there is a cold-eyed assessment of the dangerous quality of life in places other than the comfortable West. The conflict into which Nick Hyde is plunged includes roving bands of militia who number in their ranks children, kidnapped and coerced into becoming soldiers.

The theme of children who have had innocence torn from them has a resonance here quite as powerful as the fear about genetic engineering that McAuley addresses with his eponymous "White Devils" (ever more relevant, as "designer babies" continue to hog the headlines). The author, himself a scientist, is no alarmist about the latter issue. He's too level-headed to exploit the kind of science-based panics that are meat and drink to both the downmarket press, and even quality newspapers. But the world we are taken to here - in which the products of genetic engineering have escaped from the laboratory and all control - has a clammy reality that makes Michael Crichton's speculations seem unpersuasive. This is a novel that exhilarates on all levels: the ideas are quite as forcefully realised as the machine-tooled plotting.