FAIRBANKS — Kudos are due to Chugiak author Tam Linsey, who has accomplished a feat that many have tried but few have completed successfully: Writing a self-published debut novel that turned out to be quite good.
“Botanicaust” is a dystopian science fiction piece set several centuries hence, long after the world has been brought down by genetic engineering run amok. It’s a desolate planet where a few isolated outposts of civilization attempt to survive amid a landscape of deserts and scrub weeds populated by cannibals who harvest what the description on the back of the book calls “The only crop left.” In other words, it’s the worst-case scenario envisioned by anyone who has ever shaken an angry fist at Monsanto.
As “Botanicaust” opens, we meet Levi Kraybill, a resident of a small religious farming colony known as the Holdout. His son is suffering from cystic fibrosis, and against the strict rules governing the cloistered settlement, he departs in an effort to locate a group of scientists rumored to live somewhere across the desert who supposedly possess a cure for the disorder.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the landscape lies the Haldanian Protectorate, where people have learned to survive by a conversion therapy that leaves them with chloroplasts and the ability to photosynthesize, therefore needing few calories. It also turns their skin completely green. They wear nothing but tiny breechcloths in order to absorb as much sunlight as possible.
Like the Holdout, the Protectorate is guarding against the marauding gangs of cannibals just beyond its borders. To keep them at bay, aircraft are sent out to burn large swaths of land along with the people found there, although those cannibals that surrender are taken back to the protectorate where they are offered the choice of conversion or being euthanized.
Tula Macoby is a female psychiatrist working in the Protectorate, assisting converted cannibals into their new lifestyle. Her efforts meet limited success, however, and often her patients are euthanized for failing to change their ways.
Levi is captured during one of the raids on cannibals and brought back to Haldania, where Tula meets him and soon determines he’s not a cannibal. Although unable to speak his language, she quickly discerns that he comes from an established village that the Haldanians were unaware of. She becomes enchanted with him, but her boss, Vitus Dedecus, considers him unsalvageable and wants him quickly euthanized.
Readers can see where this is going: Tula decides to save Levi by helping him escape, and in the process winds up becoming a fugitive alongside him. And of course, the two are bound to fall in love as well. But those are among the very few predictable parts of this book, because Linsey has crafted a fast-moving plot that takes numerous unexpected twists. She may be working with some well-worn themes here, including forbidden love, the quest for salvation, and a world undone by mankind’s hubris, but she does so with a relish and originality rarely found even in much of what comes from the major publishing houses, much less the vanity presses.
After a series of mishaps in the desert, Tula and Levi finally reach the underground home of the Fosselites, the scientists Levi was seeking. They have discovered — and keep closely guarded — the secret of immortality, and also prove to have played a hand in the events that initially brought on the Botanicaust.
Unsurprisingly, their formula for eternal life has its own drawbacks, and the Fosselites turn out to present new dangers for our heroes, but we shouldn’t be giving away too much here. Suffice to say that it’s back to the desert, where Levi and Tula are alternately pursued by Haldanians, Fosselites, and cannibals. Their only possible hope lies with the Holdout, but Levi knows that the people dwelling there — who call themselves the Old Order and are patterned on the Amish — will immediately reject Tula; her green skin is viewed by his deeply religious brethren as being the Mark of the Beast.
Linsey explores a number of themes in this book. Obviously, our collective jitters about how far we should go with our experiments in genetic engineering underlie the entire plot, not just regarding the Botanicaust itself but also the steps taken by both the Haldanians and the Fosselites. Yet she doesn’t use the book as a political treatise. The actual events leading up to the initial catastrophe are barely explored, and the characters hold widely divergent views on the nature and capacities of science.
The relationship between Levi and Tula opens up the area of love found across racial and cultural gulfs, and Linsey works with these ideas thoughtfully as well.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this book, however, is how deeply religious it is. Levi is caught in a horrific struggle with his faith, and his attempt at squaring it with the world around him allows Linsey to contemplate some of the primary themes found in the Bible. Here, too, she accomplishes this goal with ample sensitivity and respect. Despite a couple of fairly graphic sex scenes — as well as the shockingly green naked woman on the cover — this is a book heavily focused on the search for God.
None of these themes detract from the plot, however. Like any truly skilled novelist, Linsey keeps the story at the forefront, with both the action and the character development moving apace.
“Botanicaust” could easily be picked up and reissued by a large publisher with little more than a few minor editing corrections. That can’t often be said for self-published works. This is top notch sci-fi. Hopefully we’ll be seeing more from Tam Linsey.
348 pages • $11.99
Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.