Reviewed by Peter Coleborn
In order to suspend disbelief – so that a story holds my attention – there must be an element of verisimilitude. Once I am engaged with a story, however, it can go just about anywhere; I am hooked for the ride. One of the biggest threat to that verisimilitude – and hence to that necessary suspension of disbelief – is found in the way science and scientists are handled. I blame 30 plus years in medical laboratories…
Most of the fictional scientists I encounter are on TV, programmes such as CSI, NCIS, Bones, and Waking the Dead. I enjoy some of these shows – but I often shout at the screen, yelling, No! It takes longer than five minutes to get and match a DNA profile!
I admit that I have read relatively little fiction centred on science and scientists – a couple of Patricia Cornwell novels, perhaps a few others. And now Joe & Me. In this slim chapbook a scientist is working on a secret project for the military, a project involving GMO – bacteria in this case, bugs that are being developed as a bio-weapon. Gill, the lead scientist, is doing all this in a lab within high-containment rooms (and presumably there are other bio-defence mechanisms) with just one assistant. No one else: no cleaners, secretaries, other lab staff. The lab is located (I gather) in a converted factory (or similar) somewhere in the town – not on a university campus, not in a secure installation (such as Porton Down or a pharmaceutical research establishment), where one would expect such a facility.
And at the same time she is secretly working on another GMO microorganism, one that will counter the bad bug and save the world. Sorry to say, I was yelling at the chapbook at this stage.
Then the military pulls the plug because they are unhappy about the progress of her research. They want results not tomorrow, not today, but yesterday. I can buy that – people in authority are often unreasonable in their expectations. So all funding disappears – along with her assistant. Yet the military leaves her alone in the lab, with all the equipment they used in the earlier work. The lab isn’t re-tasked; it isn’t decommissioned. Gill is becomes a maverick scientist, working on her own project.
In order to make ends meet she, her husband and son (that’s the me and Joe of the title) sell their house and live in the lab – that self same lab that’s been used to bio-engineer some nasty organisms. They sleep there. They cook and eat there. It’s as if this were a science fiction story written and set in the 1940s or 50s.
I am sorry to say, that all this made it difficult for me to really engage with Joe & Me. This is a shame because, otherwise, the story moves along at pace. The writing is crisp. The protagonists – mum, dad and Joe – come across sympathetically enough. It’s just that the science behind the story hindered my full enjoyment. If David Moody had got that bit right it would have been a vastly better read, even with the signposted finale.