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Flesh and Gold

by Phyllis Gotlieb

Toronto author Phyllis Gotlieb has for decades been producing internationally successful novels, which, I think it’s safe to say, the majority of well-read Canadians have never heard of, let alone read. Lacking the mainstream crossover appeal of detective novels and literary thrillers, works of science fiction generally appeal to an enthusiastic but narrow readership. That’s a shame because Flesh and Gold is an evocative, tightly plotted story written with an intrepid disregard for convention and stereotype; it deserves a broader audience.

While posted on a dreary industrial planet, Skerow, an interplanetary circuit-court judge, sees and has a brief telepathic conversation with a female aquatic humanoid who is being held captive in a tank in the front window of a brothel. Within hours, Skerow’s colleague is murdered, and an attempt is made on her own life. These events at first seem unrelated, but Skerow’s investigations, and those of several secret agents working in the raffish sex-trade-and-blood-sport underworld, gradually uncover a huge and shadowy conspiracy, shielded from public view by corrupt officials and bureaucratic red tape.

Gotlieb’s universe teems with a startlingly diverse array of life-forms. There are a fair number of Earthlings – mostly Russians – knocking about, while Skerow is a scaly, club-tailed, dinosaur-like Khagodi. Serious, physically ponderous, and austere in her habits to a monastic degree, she provides the fast-paced story with a still and solid emotional centre. Gotlieb’s storytelling is character-driven, and it’s a testimony to her skill that she succeeds in making this profoundly alien entity sympathetic and (in a manner of speaking) human.

Gotlieb has a keen understanding of contemporary attitudes towards technology, and of current social anxieties. She’s less interested in how the technology of the future works than in how people respond to it, and her speculations are detailed and emotionally perceptive: for example, tough guys confronted by a sleek and powerful robot “become uncomfortable and speak coarsely of the flesh, as if to reaffirm it in themselves and each other.” Instead of an elemental battle between good and evil, she offers a morally complicated scenario in which both heroes and villains are mostly just doing what they get paid to do. Wrongdoing is motivated by corporate greed, and abetted by a corporate structure so massive and unwieldy that individuals are almost never held accountable for their actions. And as the plot’s puzzle unfolds, it’s revealed that the conspiracy revolves around the hot-button issue of genetic manipulation.

Readers looking for a story to utterly immerse themselves in will find this a satisfying read; it should please Gotlieb’s fans, and may even win new converts to her genre.