Today's pharmaceutical researchers comb the deepest South American rainforests and African jungles in search of miracle cures for humanity's most devastating diseases. The goal is to uncover the answers to what ails us. But environmentalists warn that we may be digging up eons-old plagues that have the power to knock us off our lofty perch at the top of the food chain. In Stephanie A. Smith's Other Nature, civilization has been toppled by such a mystery wave of ills from which Man was, in the end, unable to save itself. This novel, though, is not so much concerned with the how of the biological apocalpyse as with its repercussions on society and on our most basic nature.
The tiny isolated hamlet of Monkar on Oregon's coast is inhabited, in the mid-21st century, by a motley assortment of old-towners and relative newcomers seeking refuge. Between avoiding the pogrom-like government patrols ranging from surviving cities and maintaining distance from the disease-ravaged ubes, Monkar's citizens have by and large made an essentially comfortable life for themselves. The technological trimmings of the 20th century have been lost, and sights familiar to residents of the century's turn are fading into memory, fast becoming the stuff of legend. Few children born there survive more than a few years. Of the small number of babies born alive, most suffer from disturbingly similar defects -- full or partial deafness, spatulate hands, excess hair. Monkar is what the dee-cees call a dead-town, one on the brink of extinction.
When one of Monkar's folk believes he has spotted Linda, a woman who disappeared some years ago, in a dee-cee road crew, it promises hope for a few and heartbreak for many. A small group sets out to try to find her and convince (or help) her to return. Two people who loved Linda, Emily and Sean, have managed to rebuild a mostly satisfying life between themselves. But Sean's decision to find Linda leaves Emily bereft. She has been hearing an eerie music in the night, a beautiful crying sound that keeps her awake and obsessed with its source. Sean dismisses these nocturnal symphonies as imagination, but after he leaves Monkar on his quest, he begins to question Emily's wellness. The rigors of his journey, and memories of his tainted past, drive most (not all) troubling thoughts of her from his mind.
After the search party's departure, Monkar turns once again to its remaining population and problems. Rumors of seals swimming out by the abandoned lighthouse (once a scientific research station) build hope that the biological world might finally be healing itself. But the strange night music and the mysterious behavior of Monkar's children may be harbingers of a brave new genetic future for Monkar and all of mankind.
Atmospheric and reflective, Other Nature alludes to humanity's self-destruction and rebirth rather than spelling the future out. Like tea leaves and thrown bones, Monkar's destiny is written ambiguously in the attitudes, actions and heartaches of its people. This tiny town and its story are the world writ small, an isolated microcosm indicative of a larger truth. Smith has penned a genetically plausible morality tale for the world ours might someday become.