A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #38:-
WHITE DEVILS: PAUL McAULEY
Simon & Schuster hb, 521pp, £12.99
Several decades of war and bio-terrorism have left the world in a bad way and Africa has suffered more than most. Nick Hyde is a charity worker in the Congo, visiting sites of guerrilla atrocities and bearing witness to what has occurred. On one such mission his party are attacked by white skinned anthropoids of an unknown species. His co-workers and their military escort are wiped out. Nick himself only just escapes with his life, but upon returning to civilisation he finds the authorities reluctant to believe his story, preferring instead to blame the atrocity on white painted rebels. The evidence he has brought back, a dead anthropoid and a baby who survived the original slaughter, mysteriously disappears, and pressure is brought to bear on Nick to toe the party line. It becomes obvious that high ranking officials in Obligate, the transnational that, for all practical purposes, governs the Congo, are involved in a cover up. Nonetheless Nick persists with his story and carries out investigations of his own. He learns of Pleistocene Park, an attempt by scientists to recreate prehistoric life forms, which was abandoned during the years of chaos, and that one of these scientists is now working for Obligate. With Elspeth Faber, the daughter of another scientist involved in the project and since murdered, Nick heads off into the Dead Zone, an area that was devastated by a liquefying virus, in search of the truth, though first he must confront not only external enemies but also the dark secret buried in his own past.
Among others, the publishers name drop Michael Crichton in the advertising blurb, and White Devils, which is billed as ‘the first genuine 21st century thriller’, reads like nothing so much as a cross between Jurassic Park and Mad Max. McAuley gives us a convincing picture of the world gone mad, with no go areas and private armies, biological terrorists and profit hungry transnationals rampant, and on the latter count the book contains some interesting and provocative ideas about the role of such institutions in the Africa of the future, with a welcome recognition that big business is not evil per se. The author’s grasp of technology also seems assured, though he doesn’t exploit the white devils as well as he might and the final revelation about their true nature is telegraphed, so that the closing chapters all have an inevitable feel about them, as the action unfolds in precisely the manner the reader expects. My biggest problem with the book though was with the character of Nick Hyde, who I found somewhat tedious and a little two-dimensional, while the idea of a grown man hiding from his mother, as Hyde does, and the romance of convenience with Elspeth, neither of which adds anything much to the story, contributed to my general feeling of dissatisfaction with the guy. The baddies in White Devils seem somehow more rounded and interesting than their opposite numbers. In particular there is the larger than life Cody Corbin, a fanatic waging a one man war against genetic manipulation and those who practice it, a Green activist with a ruthless streak and weaponry to match. I could have done with learning a lot more about where he came from and what motivates him.
McAuley tries hard to make the story grip, but ultimately White Devils is a somewhat superficial production, overlong on action and a tad short on substance, written one suspects with an eye on the bestseller charts and with film options in mind (but more Congo than Jurassic Park I fear). I didn’t dislike it, but definitely felt my time could have been better spent.