It’s the near future, and industry has been revolutionised by the creation of the perfect worker – able to communicate in words, intelligent enough to follow relatively complex orders, dexterous enough to operate fiddly machinery designed for people, but designed to be non-aggressive, unable to independently reproduce, and legally classified as property, SimGen’s chimp-human hybrids known as Sims (simians) are ideal. Despite some initial resistance, Sims are now used throughout the Western world, in a variety of roles, and they’ve propelled SimGen into the stratosphere because they’re never sold, only leased.
When labour lawyer Patrick Sullivan, fresh from a reluctant but obligatory round of golf, is approached by a Sim requesting Sullivan help form a union, he is inspired more by a desire to irritate the head of the club’s membership committee, who he’s sure voted against his application. As pressure mounts, and inspired to look good to Animal Welfare officer Romy Cadman (who is in turn being directed by the shadowy Zero, a man with an agenda of his own), Sullivan digs his heels in, and in the process begins the destruction of Sim Gen. But there are wheels within wheels, and little is as it appears.
This review is being written some time after the reading, though posted in the section when it was read (because I’m more interested in tracking when I read what than I am in when I got around to reviewing – in this case, well over a month later). And as I reflected on the book while I wrote the review (this part being written last though sited above the rest of the review, because the section at the end will be robbed of its impact if I put this last) I was struck harder by the influence of Sims than I was when I finished it.
This is an absorbing and thought-provoking novel that raises questions about what it means to be human, where the licensing of the genome is taking us, and the power of corporations and corporate money. Wilson is able to present these issues in an entertaining way, neatly combining plot with philosophy and activism. The characters are particularly well developed, and almost all of them experience a believable growth arc through the course of the book. The plot is intricate without being so Machiavellian that it’s hard to follow, and there are neat twists that don’t turn things on their head so much as deepen the subtlety and depth of the novel.
I was frequently reminded of Michael Crichton’s Next while reading Sims – both works explore similar aspects of the gene tech revolution: what happens when corporations patent naturally-occurring genes, how did it happen that they could own them, who owns chimeral creations, where do and where should we draw the line between human and non-human, and what makes us human? Crichton’s technique was to draw together a number of subplots into one cohesive picture of the near future. In contrast Wilson focuses on one battle to illustrate his central thesis. What raises Wilson’s work above the best-seller’s contribution is that it’s heart is about ethics and right; while Crichton admittedly incorporated this as an element, his focus was more on the wrongs done to individuals in order to benefit corporations, on the impact on humanity of this emerging technology. Wilson asks what good humanity is if it makes the world worse for our fellow creatures. It’s unfortunate that the work of the admittedly-admirable Crichton, which covers more ground less thoroughly, will have so much greater a readership than this undoubtedly better written, plotted and characterised novel. - Alex