In 1996 Rachel Whitelock escaped the war in Zaire with a secret that could change the lives of millions. Now she is going back to Africa to oversee covert trials of the genetically modified crop that came from that discovery.But someone is waiting for her... Ex-warlord Ato Jelani has waited eighteen years for her to return what she stole from Africa, but he doesn't just want it to feed the people. With the power this crop has, he can restart the war. Hunted across the jungles of Bengara, Whitelock must pull off a daring plan that could make or break her career... and change the course of a nation.
GM is part political thriller, part horror. Superficially it is a tale of Western intervention in third-world politics. A well-meaning scientist returns to West Africa to repay a twenty year old debt, but in doing so gets enmeshed is an even older civil war. What she does to reconcile her own personal goals with those of the people of the troubled country of Bengara forms the spine of the story.
But it is not self-conscious morality tale. It draws from traditional Gothic stories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, referencing Frankenstein and the zombie genre amongst others to make a ripping adventure yarn with plenty of blood and gore! It is an unusual and bold hybrid: read it as an intelligent gore-fest, or a literary thriller highlighted in violence. Either way, as our reviewers say, it is a rewarding and though-provoking work!
GM is a work of fiction. Although some locations are real, and retain their real names, the Democratic Republic of Bengara is entirely fictitious, as are its people and events that take place there. It is unfortunate that most readers will be reminded of somewhere they have heard of in the violent and troubled place that is modern-day West Africa, but Bengara is not specifically modelled on any of them. Goma, of course, exists, but the events that took place there are pure fiction.
And what of GM? Does Rice L-611 exist? No. Most of the science behind it does, but the rice itself is a simplification for the purpose of dramatic effect. GM is not a science textbook, and given how mind-numbingly dull most genetic work actually is, I hope you will understand why I have taken considerable licence with the facts. In any case, Rice L-611 is more of a symbol than an actual crop, in the same way that Frankenstein’s monster or the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park are symbols. None are possible as their authors describe, but hopefully in each case the reader is willing to make a leap of faith in order to to get to what is really important in the stories.
In this case, L-611 symbolises the common Western belief that science is the panacea for all the world’s ills. Already cotton plants have been modified with Bacillus thuringiensis toxins to make them lethal to bollworms; cabbages have been genetically laced with scorpion venom to kill caterpillars; and tests have been run to develop hep-b and cholera vaccines administered through modified bananas. So a rice strain that can alter the behaviour of locusts? Not yet, but a century ago who would have believed that we would be able to do the things we can do today?
This novel is not a polemic either in favour of, or rallying against, genetic tinkering in modern agriculture. In fact, the GM aspect of the story ultimately takes second place to the actions of the human participants. Like any science, it’s not what it does but what it’s used for that is important. Nuclear fission can power our modern society or destroy it; dynamite drove the mining and navigation of the industrial revolution, but it is also made into bombs; even Zyklon-B, the gas used to kill millions of Jews in the Nazi extermination camps, is derived from a gas used to fumigate the valuable citrus crops in nineteenth century America.
Nor am I saying that financial aid is always bad; rather that it has too often been seen through the eyes of the capitalist developed world as a cure for all that is wrong with the developing world. Sadly, and to the cost of many of the people it was supposed to help, cash alone is not a cure for very much. As David Kabosi asks Whitelock in Rutshuru: ‘Do you know how much of the aid money you sent to Ethiopia in the 1980s was used to buy weapons?’ (The answer, according to a BBC investigation in 2010, is about $95million. All that money did a lot of good, but it also did a lot of harm.)
So am I proposing that a ‘scientific revolution’, as Whitelock describes her experiment, is the best way forward? That depends on whether you see L-611 as being a good idea that was badly implemented, or a bad idea that was disastrously implemented. It is undoubtledly true that visionary scientists with altruistic motives could revolutionise third world agriculture. It is also true that they could merely further enslave indigenous farmers by altering their practices so drastically that they have no way back. One of the major criticisms levelled at companies like SenCor is that in making farmers dependent on their patented (and costly) product they are merely replacing one disastrous agricultural practice with another, with no hope of genuine self-sufficiency, let alone the ability to haul themselves out of poverty.
So did Whitelock’s experiment have a good chance of working out for the benefit of the locals? Is the empowering science of modern genetics any better at its job than financial aid, even if it is done altruistically? Or do both trail destruction – a wake of unintended consequences – behind them?
That’s up to you, the reader, to decide. I have guided you through to a question mark. How you answer it is up to you!Back