Children of the Night

By: Dan Simmons

Vampire story. Check.

Dan Simmons, great sci-fi author. Double check.

Setting: Romania. Triple check, home run.

What's not to like about a book with all that going for it?

Well, for starters, it's a little too politicized for my taste.

While I understand that most writers will inject at least a bit of their personal agenda into a book, either in the narrative of the omniscient observer, or in the actions and words of one or more characters, there is a fine line between subtle subtext and a big, fat hammer. In this case, Simmons, normally one of my more beloved writers, has pulled the ball peen out of his toolkit and is wielding it with a vengeance.

Set in modern-day Romania, Simmons does a fine job of setting a worn-out, used-up, tired and hungry stage. The initial horror of the story has less to do with the reminiscences of the notorious Vlad the Impaler (the purported real-life Dracula) than with the descriptions of the vile and pitiful post-Ceausescu Romanian orphanages - and the desperate, well-fed American couples who use their wealth not to save lives needy children so much as to right the wrongs of capricious nature, taking home a nice little white baby and making themselves parents with money, where biology has failed them.

Our protagonists are just as tired as the setting: hard-driving, intensely-focused female American research physician, who adopts a dying child; sweet-souled American priest who learns that God doesn't reside in his Church, but in the arms of said doctor, and the life of her child.

Kate Neuman is working with suffering Romanian children at an orphanage, trying to overcome the effects of neglect, poverty, inadequate healthcare, and a high rate of AIDS with the sheer force of her will.

Mike O'Rourke is busy trying to prevent the illegal sale of said babies, and he patrols the streets, following the Romania baby Mafia into cabbage-reeking apartments as they try to close the deal on the sale of a Gypsy child to a Filthy-Rich American.

In this way, Kate and Mike take a few tentative steps toward one another, parting at the airport following a cinematic cat-and-mouse chase as Kate attempts to take - against the will and wiles of several forces - the aptly-named baby Joshua (Jesus, anyone?) to his new life in America (she has adopted him).

Turns out Joshua, in addition to having a rare complex of blood disorders, also has a strange new organ that evidently digests blood. More, Joshua's diseases make it necessary for him to get a transfusion every few days. That is, in order to survive, Joshua must, in the parlance of the modern vamp story, feed.

In a parallel story, we meet Vlad Dracul, the so-called Impaler, who, after six hundred or so years of life has decided to die. (Vlad is a genuine historic man, notorious for his blood-thirsty ways, and most famous for liking to dispatch his victims by seating them upon a sharpened stake, allowing their agonized writhing to go on for days - and in such numbers that they created a literal forest of the dead and dying outside his castle walls.)

Vlad, it seems, is now head of a family whose recessive-recessive genetic blueprint (altered by a clever virus) has rendered them - well, vampires. Secretive, powerful, and motivated only by survival, Vlad's descendants understand that his death means a new "head" must be invested. And who should this new head turn out to be but...  well, you got it.

Moody, original, and jam-packed with science (that I am assured checks out), the rest of the story runs on two tracks: how can the baby's genetic information be used to solve the puzzles of AIDS and cancer, and will The Family be able to capture and keep the baby away from she-bear-mother Kate?

There's a little too much high-minded outraged ranting at the infamy of politics and AIDs and the profit motive for my comfort, as I mentioned before, and I'm a little disappointed that Simmons didn't dig a little deeper for his characters. Still, he is superior to most other sci-fi writers practicing the craft today, and his worst effort is still worth the time.

Anyway, it's summer. Enjoy!


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