R.D. Hale’s Sky City is the first book I’ve read from the biopunk genre. It’s apparently a recent innovation that focuses on the consequences of genetic tinkering. Think cyberpunk but instead of implants a person’s actual genetic structure is changed. It could be argued that the genre dates all the way back to H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (the excellent book, not the terrible movie), but as a complete genre it’s fairly recent.
Hale’s use of biopunk isn’t pervasive throughout the novel but he wields it well. The genetic tinkering of Sky City creates new people with some amazing abilities, but it doesn’t result in complete supermen (or women), the modified people are often unaware of their complete set of abilities and those abilities – while very impressive – aren’t complete game changers in terms of the narrative. After all, a small handful of people – no matter how powerful – would immediately be overwhelmed by a vastly superior force.
And that vastly superior force is the genesis of the novel. Sky City is set in a world that is fiercely striated by both economic means and religious affiliation. No money? Get thee to the slums where you can eke out a living scavenging or fighting in arenas. There is an implied level of mobility but the cost of moving from the bottom to the top is inordinately expensive. And holding it all together is a pervasive religious belief that can be used to further stratify society.
Needless to say this situation causes tension between the haves and the have-nots and those who reject the religion. Hidden in the shadows are groups that seek to redress this situation and our heroes and heroines fall in with those who seek change.
This is where Hale’s work really shines. In typical stories like these the reader is taught to see those who seek change as essentially the good guys and their actions as necessary. Hale drops a hefty dose of reality into the battle for change and we begin to see not only the freedom fighters as not necessarily good people but we begin to see the rulers as not really being all bad. Innocents on both sides are caught in the middle and even the narrator begins to wonder if he’s doing the right thing.
So, you’ve got a world that blends the fantastic (the biopunk and sci-fi elements) with very real issues (societal striation and the constant question of who’s actually doing the right thing or even if such a thing exists). It’s about as balanced a novel as you’re likely to come across. If you like your sci-fi balanced with real-world problems, Sky City is the book for you.