Science and Sociology in Archangel

I reviewed Archangel by Marguerite Reed last week. I enjoyed the book, but I felt that it wasn’t living up to its potential at a couple of points. Notably, it raised a number of social issues and questions that I felt weren’t adequately explored. Still, I think you can read between the lines and make some interesting conclusions. I caution that I have no idea whether Ms. Reed was thinking along these lines. I merely submit that I consider this a plausible reading of the book, which contains some very interesting science and sociology, which is why I wanted to share it.

Warning: spoilers below. The first thing you notice about the universe of Archangel is a sort of hyper-environmentalism. Ubastis has a human population of only a few thousand, and its people are very worried about the environmental impact of adding a few thousand more. It’s true that the story is told from the perspective of an environmentalist in a community of environmental scientists, but we do get some clues that things are not as simple as they seem. Most notably, Earth is said to be so polluted as to be uninhabitable less than four short centuries from now; a family trying to recolonize it could only survive because they had chemical scrubbers. Another colonized world, Theta, is already suffering serious environmental damage. Most humans live on space stations in poor conditions.

How this happened is unclear. While carbon dioxide is widely regarded as a pollution problem, actual toxic pollutants are fairly well regulated, at least in the West. But accepting that it did happen for the sake of the story, it provides a good reason why the people of Ubastis are so worried about the future of their world.

The next interesting thing about this world is that most of the humans are genetically modified, not just to eliminate genetic diseases, say, but to reduce aggressive tendencies. The most relevant justification for this is that aggressive tendencies are bad living in space, where people are permanently in close quarters with each other, but as you might expect, the Enhanced majority now feels this is to be preferred. As a result, all violence, even in self-defense, is regarded with deep distrust and even revulsion.

Vashti Loren is a Natch–natural, unmodified–and has trouble seeing eye-to-eye with the Enhanced humans around her. She was once a member of Patrol and Rescue–basically the police force, or perhaps the Coast Guard. She was removed after an incident in which she shot and killed three people in self-defense and Patrol and Rescue in general was no longer allowed to carry lethal weapons after that. This was despite the fact that, one, the shooting was ruled to be justified, and, two, the people she killed had no legal rights anyway (more on that in a minute).

The Wadjet Valley incident, as it was called, shows how deep the divide goes. It’s even more significant, though, when it’s revealed that most of the Patrol and Rescue officers are Natches. The Enhanced don’t have the stomach for police work. This leads to an uncomfortable paradox. The Enhanced look down on the Natches for their aggressiveness, but at the same time, they need them to keep the colony safe. It leads me to wonder if there is even more tension under the surface than we see in the pages.

That tension is all too clear when we see the Beasts. Beasts are genetically-modified super-soldiers, optimized for enormous strength and speed, and aggression beyond even Natches, to the point where they can’t function in normal society, and few even try. They have no legal rights. They are given a very specific brain surgery that makes them incapable of using the word “I”. They can only say “we”. They will imprint on a Natch human and follow their orders without fail, but it’s believed that they can’t live outside the military without being a threat to others. Humans fear and hate them, and even their own commander, the Enhanced General Zhadao, looks down on them with disdain.

From the first moment we’re introduced to the Beasts in Archangel, I couldn’t help but think of Dr. Frankenstein. Like the creators of the Beasts, Frankenstein dedicated his life to creating his monster, then came to fear and hate it at the very moment it came to life. The great difference is that the modern-day Dr. Frankensteins who created the Beasts feared and hated their creations precisely because they got exactly what they wanted. If even one of the characters had read Mary Shelley, it could have made for a very interesting conversation.

Finally, we have the fact that Vashti is a mother. This in itself is unusual, both because crowded conditions on the space stations restricts the number of children born, and because most children are grown in a lab, not born through pregnancy, as Vashti’s Bibi was. Thus, Vashti is both a Natch and a natural mother, a rare breed that few others can relate to, and she speaks directly about how it made her feel like a mother to all of Ubastis.

But this isn’t the full story. Late in the novel, the Beast drops the biggest and (in the context of the story) most worrisome social bombshell: Enhanced humans have a reduced oxytocin response. This was ostensibly done to reduce addictive behavior. (I’m not sure I see the science on this, but let’s accept it for the sake of the story.) In fact, the Beast specifically says, “Powers that be figured that addiction was a greater evil than a decreased ability to form social bonds.”

I think this is very dangerous thinking, and I can only hope that those “powers that be” thoroughly tested it. Oxytocin is associated with sex, childbirth, breastfeeding, and social bonding. Because of this, it’s frequently called the “love hormone”, but it’s a little more complicated than that. It seems to foster in-group loyalty more so than universal compassion. Even so, if we extrapolate the effects of this decision into the social environment, it would not surprise me if the Enhanced of the future are socially maladjusted and more distant parents compared with Natches. I didn’t see anything to contradict it, and I have to wonder just how must that has affected society behind the scenes. And in particular, it leads me to wonder if Vashti’s superiors understood or were even capable of understanding just how much trouble they were provoking when they threatened, out of the blue, to take Vashti’s daughter away from her.

There’s a very rich world in Archangel surrounding what the human species has done to their environment and to themselves, but most of it is below the surface. But I hope that, in addition to continuing a good story, we can see more exploration of these issues in the pending sequel, Legion.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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