The Rhesus Factor by Sonny Whitelaw
The Rhesus Factor by Sonny Whitelaw has been sitting on my harddrive for a few years, waiting for me to finally get around to reading it. The Australian Women Writers Challenge gave me the push I needed to pick it up. The Rhesus Factor can be downloaded as a free pdf from Whitelaw’s website (you have to click on the link in the left menu).
In essence, The Rhesus Factor is an eco-thriller. Set in the near future when the Gulf Stream has stopped, climate change is decidedly noticeable and drug-resistant epidemics are sweeping the Earth. Since it was written about ten years ago, some of the technology of our very near future isn’t quite here (no space planes to hop across the pacific in a matter of hours, not even for the US Airforce) but some of her predictions are eerily true. There was a throwaway paragraph that included severe bushfires in southern Australia and Brisbane flooding, for example. Granted, those aren’t exactly outlandish predictions, and the Gulf Stream is still with us, but still, some of the crazy weather Whitelaw describes doesn’t feel like it’s as outlandish as it would have been ten years ago.
There was also this great line about the US congress which predicts a situation that has become slightly old news now:
“So you voted in a Democratic President—but hedged your bets with a Republican Congress that will not entertain any motion to install a fair and equitable health care system.”
Anyway, back to the story. The Rhesus Factor follows a handful of characters through dramatic* climate change, the discovery of a virus which is on track to sterilising 99% of humanity, terrorist attacks, and assorted other emergencies. Some of the characters are clearly there to demonstrate consequences to ordinary folk, but most of them play some sort of governmental role (including scientific research) in mitigating the damage. A nice touch, I thought, was that almost all of the characters were quite competent and none of the disasters were because of any one person stuffing up. They were all just sort of inevitable.
My favourite character, and the one I felt was the most developed, was Kristin: an Australian marine engineer, initially based in Vanuatu, who has the unfortunate luck to be present for almost all the on-page explosions. (There are a lot of explosions.) Her back story, complete with an ex-boyfriend who has the emotional intelligence of a wet rag, is well drawn and she’s not one of the people who knows everything up front, so it was nice to discover some of what was going on as she did. She also had a strong “Australian, no-nonsense” pragmatism which helped keep up the pace of the book (not that it was ever in any danger of dragging).
Another enjoyable character to read was the Australian Prime Minister. I suspect half the reason I liked him is because the world would be a better place if we had more political leaders that cut through bullshit and did what needed to be done. The other half is that his scenes — particularly some of the comments he makes when not in front of the press — were some of the most amusing and did a good job of diffusing some of the inherent doom of the novel. The most unbelievable aspect of both his character and the US President is that, before becoming politicians, both were scientists with ecology-related (I forget the specifics) PhDs. I just don’t really buy that they got elected,
especially the President, but it’s a good thing for their world that they did.
I also enjoyed Australia being so central to many of the events taking place. Other prominent settings were Vanuatu and the US, but while the US was obligatory (greatest impact of Gulf Stream failure, powerful government), the Australian scenes were more lovingly carved. From the outback, down to Kristin complaining about Canberran weather.
The Rhesus Factor is a fast-paced, thriller crammed with one disaster after another. Set in the near future in a world a little bit more disease-ridden, with a slightly more altered climate than ours, it will keep you flipping/tapping the pages to find out what happens next. I should warn you though, Whitelaw set out to present a realistic picture of the near future. The only fabricated factor is, as the title will tell you, the Rhesus factor which acts as a catalyst for some disasters and an also-ran for others. There is no quick-fix offered in the novel and the ending isn’t exactly a happy one — though it is somewhat hopeful. Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining and, if you’re into getting science out of your fiction, an educational# one.
4.5 / 5 stars
* I say dramatic because the Gulf Stream failed. It’s not quite Hollywood dramatic, if you’re wondering.
# Actually, The Rhesus Factor is available as a free pdf because at one point it was cited by an Australian MP in Queensland parliament for its realistic and alarming predictions.