Black Milk – Robert Reed (1989)
‘In a future both idyllic and hi-tech, Ryder is the leader of a very special group of children. In their different ways, they are all highly specialised; in Ryder’s case, he has an eidetic memory and hyperacute senses, thanks to genetic engineering. And thanks to Dr Florida.
Genius, super-scientist and philanthropist, Dr Florida everyone’s favourite grandfather; but, as Ryder’s story unfolds, Florida is seen against the long-term effects of his work, which are not always as foreseen. this is the case with sparkhounds, a new species of creature intended to colonise planets which are presently dangerous to humans and make them liveable. Instead, the ‘hounds revolt and attempt to take over Earth. Ryder, his parents, his friends and Dr Florida himself have to make impossible decisions in the chaos that follows, and thus they all learn more about themselves.’
Blurb from the 1990 Orbit paperback edition.
Sometime in the near future the tailoring of children’s genes has become commonplace. In Central America, a group of gene-tailored children meet, bond and together build a well-defended tree house in a large oak-tree.
The central figure, Ryder, has an unexpected talent in his ‘refined’ genes in that he has an eidetic memory so perfect that at times he goes into trances while reliving past events.
Marshall has been given additional intelligence but is still made to feel inadequate by his mother’s need for perfection, which is why he has to win at everything.
Jack, the only tailored child in his family, has more modest improvements and spends his time catching and studying snakes.
Beth is of Indian descent and sings beautifully while Cody has been tailored after her Lesbian mothers’ wishes to compete with men on their own terms. She is strong, practical and has a perfect aim.
The mastermind behind these advances is Dr Florida, ‘Father of the World’; a genetic scientist whose team is also dabbling in the manipulation of animal genes. Every year Dr Florida visits some part of the world and release new creatures, and their capture by the local children elicits rewards. This year Dr Florida visits Ryder’s area and releases a white, furred four-legged snake which he calls a snow dragon; something which Jack and Marshall are determined to capture. Dr Florida, however, appears to have ulterior motives and invites the children to spend a holiday with him.
Some time later, news breaks regarding ‘the moon’s moon’; a comet which Dr Florida’s company has placed in orbit around the partly-colonised moon, and which is being mined for water and organics. It appears that Dr Florida is a man obsessed with bringing life to the sterile wastes of the Universe. He has secretly created a species he calls ‘sparkhounds’ within the comet which were designed to populate the upper atmosphere of gas giants.
They are large armoured winged creatures with the faces of bulldogs and a stinging tail. They absorb electricity and have organic batteries built into their bodies. They create floating nests from any available organics and are naturally ferocious and territorial. Now some of them have escaped, killed the staff of the comet and are breeding and building new nests.
Many of Reed’s novels are oddly structured, taking a diversion midway through the narrative, and this is an example.
Most of the first half is taken up with Ryder and his eidetic memory of how his group of children came together, and his relationship with the strange Dr Florida.
It would appear that Dr Florida has plans for the ‘team’ of children he was so impressed with, but it is not made clear exactly what those plans were. When it is though that the world might be invaded by sparkhounds, he plans to evacuate several hundred gene-tailored children on an ark constructed from an asteroid, but this never transpires. It is suggested that Florida engineered (no pun intended) the escape of the ‘hounds in order to launch the ark and bring life to some other part of the Solar System, or the galaxy, and because of the destruction of the ‘hounds was thwarted in his plan.
So what is the novel all about? One can possibly see Dr Florida as a metaphor for God; ‘Father of the World’; the giver of life. Certainly he is ultimately enigmatic and unknowable. The snow dragon highlights the children’s differences. Marshall is desperate to trap it for gain and the approval of his ghastly mother. Jack seems to want to study it, while Ryder thinks it should be left alone to live out its life. The girls seem indifferent to the creature.
Overall the novel is highly unsatisfactory since Reed fails to move out of the pastoral idyll he has created for his children. The denouement in which the ‘hounds are destroyed ‘off-page’ leaves one with a sense of anti-climax. One feels that a far more dramatic solution would have been to have the children board the asteroid ark and then for Ryder to have his internal debate about the motives of Dr Florida, a man established as complex and enigmatic but sadly burdened with some very bad dialogue.
Reed tidies up the loose ends by shooting years ahead to an adult Ryder, looking back on what had happened to his friends since the Sparkhound Crisis.
Reed’s recurrent motif of the adolescent boy in small-town America perhaps begins here, but this is his least satisfying work and reads like something hurriedly finished. There is, however, a Simak-esque poignancy to it, and one cannot help but be reminded of Simak’s tales of the idyllic West passing away while at the same time having alien creatures roaming the countryside.