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A GuranIn Signs of Life, M. John Harrison reveals with images rather than with plot as he tells his story in a gradual, dramatic fashion, more theatrical than literary. It is only in retrospect that the story fully achieves its chilling impact and one realizes Harrison has devised a dark morality play for a new century.
Mick "China" Rose and his partner Choe Ashton deliver and sometimes dispose of things -- fast and without questions -- for the European genetics industry. Choe is an erratic and endearing sociopath. Mick, a world-weary fifty, meets Isobel Avens, a young woman half his age who dreams of flying and falls in love with her. As Mick and Choe deal with the practicalities of business and life, Isobel begins to lose her dreams. She leaves Mick for one of his clients -- a wealthy Miami doctor -- then returns, sick and weak from mysterious treatments the doctor has administered.
Isobel has been transformed and destroyed by both her dreams and near-future alchemy: DNA cut-and-splice has given her a birdlike metabolism and feathers. But she will never actually fly. Her needs, dreams, and incomplete transformation are as toxic as the waste Mick and Choe pollute with. In Harrison's world choices have consequences and the symbolic becomes real. The the world is filled with the poisoned detritus of infectious rubbish and its inhabitants refuse to accept moral responsibility for their own actions, let alone that of others.
"Some events [writes Harrison toward the end of Signs of Life] take language away from you. The pieces of the world settle into a shape that won't be said. It is a kind of vertigo, the endless panic bubbles up but it doesn't seem to show."
Harrison, however, never loses his exquisite gift of language as he shapes his world. It is not until the end of Signs of Life that you comprehend the horror of the story and realize how unforgettable and unsettling an experience it has been.