The Unselfish Gene
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|Author||Robert Douglas Burns|
|Cover artist||Rick Lee|
|Genre||Science fiction novel|
|Publisher||Swimming Kangaroo Books|
|Media type||Print (paperback)|
In the mid-21st century, a form of bird flu has killed billions and turned most of the rest into mindless, stumbling zombie-like invalids. The few humans who had immunity now face the threat of a comet on a collision course with Earth. Settlers from the Moon colony were spared the disease, but face their own threats to survival: radiation-induced mental illness, a limited gene pool and shrinking resources. The Moon settlers have launched a last-ditch mission to Earth to salvage un-mutated human DNA and other crucial materials before the comet strikes. The salvage crew find the biggest threat to the mission is neither the zombies or the comet, but insanity within their own ranks.
At the novel's beginning, Kristen Norman copes with an attack of clinical depression as she and a team of moon colonists await the start of a mission to return to plague-stricken Earth. The team's mission: to save the human race.
All but a handful of Earth-bound humans have been killed or turned into zombie-like invalids by a mutated forms of bird flu known as Low-Path and High-Path. Isolated by politics and limited resources, the moon colony was spared infection, but the colonists have their own health problems. High levels of radiation have damaged the DNA of the limited gene pool. The same radiation has damaged Kristen's and others' minds as well, resulting in high instances of mental illness.
The moon colony desperately needs resources to survive. The Earth, with nearly all the population dead or dying, is a large warehouse waiting to be raided. The moon needs genetic engineering equipment, pharmaceuticals, scientific equipment, seed stock, and, most of all, new human genetic material. They have been promised the later by a mysterious contact on Earth, one of the few surviving Earthbound humans, code-named "Deep Throat." Deep Throat, claims to have a large sperm and ova bank that she is willing to donate to the cause, but remains secretive as to his or her identity and extent of resource. The multiple levels of the name Deep Throat are not lost on the moon men and women.
To get to the Earth and back, moon engineers have bankrupted the moon's resources to build a spaceship design resurrected from the 1950s, The Anita, an atomic-powered brute of a space ship.
But the moon men have been too long in building the Anita. A rogue comet, named Kali, was recently discovered to be on a collision course with Earth. The planet-killing impact is less than two weeks away.
The Anita's technology is unproven in a planetary atmosphere, and the ship was hastily completed in order to beat Kali to the punch.
While Kristen copes with depression the old-fashioned way — with pharmaceuticals — her teammates Jimmy Olson, Jorge Blanca and Gayle Ring are also dealing with introspective mental states as they await the final stage of the Anita's approach to the Earth. All four are in currently in The Ark, a small tug-boat tender to the Anita, when the unthinkable happens. An explosion of mysterious origin depressurizes the Anita, killing nearly everyone aboard.
With no time to re-staff the Anita, Jimmy, Kristen, Jorge and Gayle must conduct an abbreviated, hurried mission to Earth. The goal is to at least rescue the frozen sperm and ova and key genetic engineering and therapy equipment before Kali strikes.
A rescue mission by Jimmy and Jorge finds only five aboard the Anita who survived the depressurization: Crystal Karen, Tisha Smith, Bobby Randel, Daniel Kaplan, and Abraham Badr.
The Anita lands successfully, but as the mission on the surface proceeds it becomes obvious that explosion and the death of the crew was sabotage. Shortly before the Anita lands, Hannah Alman, seventeen years old and a survivor of the Low-Path plague, is taking refuge in the Dallas Zoo. Hannah is rebelling, out on her own, truant from a small commune of survivors living near Fair Park in the southern part of the city. She is not aware that her commune is about to be destroyed by the Anita's landing.
Technology and Science Background
Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene
The title and deep theme of the novel is a nod to Richard Dawkins' 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. Among the concepts developed in Dawkins' book is a theory of how natural selection may favor self-sacrifice and other forms of altruism. The themes of altruism and small gene sets play an important role in plot and character development in The Unselfish Gene.
Atomic-Powered Big Lifter
The Unselfish Gene is what might be termed "semi-hard" science fiction. The technology described in the book is well within the limits of early 21st century technology. Some of it, such as "The Anita", an atomic-bomb powered heavy lifter space ship, was actually tested in the late 1950s in the United States under an engineering study named Project Orion.
In essence, "The Anita" is an atomic-bomb machine gun and pretty much follows the design developed by Project Orion more than a hundred years earlier. For propulsion, the ship ejects small fusion bombs from the rear end like a hen laying eggs. The bombs are detonated 100 meters from the ship and the force of the blast propels it.
With such brute force, the Anita, in theory, can land its huge bulk on the Earth and take off again with its cargo hold filled with millions of tons of salvaged supplies.
A key, perhaps controversial, concept in the novel is that humans are not adapted to life in space. Bone loss, technically spaceflight osteopenia is well documented, but the concept that radiation in an interplantary environment might affect the human brain and cause depression and/or obsessive compulsive behavior is largely conjecture, but there has been some work done studying cognitive decay of brain cancer patients receiving radiation treatment. Poor diets, confinement and other stresses also play a role in the decline of the emotional health of the moon colony citizens and space travelers.
Ding Dang Flu
Ding Dang Flu is a fictional SARS-like disease. Where SARS had a case-fatality rate of 9.6%, Ding Dang Flu kills nearly 90%, and most of the remaining 10% are so brain-damaged and prone to violence that they are effectively zombies.
Kali, the killer comet
Kali is a fictional Earth-killer comet, named after not the Hindu Goddess of annihilation but the moon-based astronomer who takes credit for its discovery. Though the comet Kali is fictional, the author used a planetarium program, TheSky, to get a realistic description of what the comet's approach would look like from the skies of Dallas, Texas, USA, as it nears Earth.
- Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship, Dyson, George, Henry Holt and Co.
- The Selfish Gene, Dawkins, Richard, Oxford 1976