~by Anne Harris
1999 Gaylactic Spectrum Award Winner
When I first encountered Anne Harris' Accidental Creatures I was completely oblivious to to the fact that I had met the author before, albeit briefly. I came across the book while browsing through the lists of the Spectrum Award winners and nominees. (Accidental Creatures won in 1999, the first year the award was given, tying with Dark Water's Embrace by Stephen Leigh.) The title intrigued me, the cover mesmerized me, and on top of that, I found out that Harris was more or less a local author. That's when I began to wonder and eventually realized that Harris is a frequent participant on the Kerrytown BookFest's SF panel. This is usually a great panel that I enjoy immensely, and I'm more than happy to support the authors that participate.
Accidental Creatures begins with two separate stories (those of Chango and Helix) that quickly become intertwined as the book progresses, taking place with a convincing near-future Detroit as a backdrop. The auto companies have collapsed and the bio-textile industry has risen to take their place. GeneSys is the industry's preeminent corporation, but it has been frequently troubled by the threats and demands of its workforce. The vatdivers, who harvest the biopolymers, are just as often thwarted in their attempts to organize. Diving is dangerous work--constant exposure to the biopolymers' growth medium causes genetic mutations and in the end leads to an early death.
Chango is a sport--a daughter of first-generation vatdivers, she is fortunate that her mutation isn't life-threatening. She takes up thieving to support herself when her older sister Ada, a community leader in the struggle for workers' rights, dies under questionable circumstances. Helix has always been different, with four arms and fangs she stand out even among the sports. As the daughter of Dr. Hector Martin, a prominent research scientist at GeneSys working on a highly classified project, she has led a secluded life. By chance the two women meet, precipitating Chango's discovery of the truth surrounding her sister's death and Helix's discovery of the truth about herself.
Accidental Creatures has an interesting mix of elements; while it can be firmly categorized as science fiction (with a strong flavor of cyberpunk), Harris also incorporates some fantasy, mysticism, intrigue, and mystery. Her characters are queer in many ways--physically, sexually, mentally, emotionally--but readers aren't bashed over the head with any of it. The book is much more subtle than that. I was pleased that sexuality was included in such a way that it added to the story instead of detracting from it. In addition to strong characters, the envisioning of the future Motor City and social conditions was particularly well done.
Unfortunately, Accidental Creatures has gone out of print, making nice copies a little harder to find. While not outstanding, it was a satisfying read and enjoyable enough to be worth the extra effort needed to track down a copy. The plot and characters did seem a bit uneven at times, but it was a fun and interesting book regardless. As action-packed as the story was, I also found it to be rather thought-provoking (as all good speculative fiction should be), especially in regards to genetic engineering, socioeconomic class, responsibility, and individuality. No definite answers are given, but the questions raised are important. I'll have to make sure to my copy of the book signed the next time I get a chance to see Harris again.