Beat in her blood, Heavy metal mysteries Vol.1 (J.K.Ullrich, Wild Type Press 2022) is an astonishing, and prescient novel. Set in Baltimore in the near future, medical science is outrunning regulation and a black market of robotic limbs and implants has developed for HPM – human performance modification – servicing a willing population. So willing, people are ready to chance their luck with shady doctors moonlighting in back-alley operations. Beat in her blood is science fiction but Ullrich reminds us that the medical enhancements it covers exist already. It takes a second on Google to find an array of scholarly articles on HPM. As she says, those chips that monitor our body’s rhythms are just in our smart phone, not under our skin.
Unfolding within this world is a mystery. From the first page, a brief Prelude, we are introduced to a character who seems to be conducting surgery on herself. It is clearly not a clinical setting, there is blood and self-administered anaesthesia, yet she is assured, in control. Control, and the lack of it, is a theme that drives this action-packed novel.
Ullrich’s protagonist Petra is a veteran of a recent conflict. She is battle-scarred with titanium bionic hardware throughout her body and a host of traumatic memories. Petra pilots a boat, a ‘screws cruise’ which provides a makeshift theatre outside the territorial regulatory limits. When she finds a surgeon dying in the hold she teams up with a paramedic, Jonathan, to find out what has happened.
Jonathan knows Dr McCormick from the hospital where he works and he acts as a vehicle for the reader as we come to grips with the ethical terrain. His disbelief that his friend, April McCormick, could willingly participate in this medical tourism evolves, as does ours. Jonathan also carries a profound grief about a different medical procedure gone wrong.
Their investigation takes them to the literal cutting edge of biotechnology. Dr McCormick is connected to the development of a new biotech enhancement which uses electrodes inserted under the scalp to redirect a body’s existing currents to target areas of the brain. The Beat, however, is still experimental. It has been developed by research scientsts in a private facility. Jonathan and Petra cross paths with a scientist, Kade, who has his own mysterious connection to the woman in the boat, and who wants to initiate clinical trials for the Beat.
“What does this Beat cure?”
“Depends on the brain region you target with the nodes.” Kade indicated a dangling wire for each item as he listed it. “Psychological problems, nervous disorders, endocrine diseases…”
“…Adrenaline jolts to improve your speed or give you the edge in a fight.” Frost-framed memories clouded Petra’s vision, and she shook her head to melt them away.
Kade made a face. “Those things are hypothetically possible, but I hadn’t planned to include them in the app.”
An app. The setup is persuasive enough that it isn’t a stretch to think, Why not? Ullrich’s deft presentation of the context of biomedical research is compelling—a system where research funding and regulation is driven by companies and markets creating artificial scarcity to feed the rapacious desires of powerful lobbies. Ullrich teases out many of the ethical dilemmas—not only who gets treatment, where and how, but why some and not others are legal and what happens when more and more people need or want them in a world where profit reigns supreme.
It is a story familiar to anyone downstream of a tussle between public and private interests. The most vulnerable are left behind. Petra is one of these. She wants more and better treatment for her veteran siblings who are among those forced to buy junk in backyard operations.
Ullrich’s convincing characters are a pleasure to spend time with and she uses dialogue well to carry action. The language is evocative throughout. ‘Humidity’s thick blanket felt almost comforting after the hospital’s sterile chill. Her sneakers pounded across city blocks, puddles splashing her legs.’
In her Afterword, Ullrich describes a condition that afflicts both her and, more seriously, her sister to whom she dedicates this book. After years of unrelated symptoms, its eventual diagnosis was Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. It manifests differently in every patient and can vary from a mostly manageable condition to living with chronic, untreatable pain.
Understanding this, it is hardly a surprise that Ullrich explores a world where we can exchange one faulty body part for another. And Ullrich also reminds us that even in a future where replacement limbs are infinite, the world our bodies must inhabit is not. The imperative of climate change requires us to either reverse that process or adapt. She asks, ‘Is transhumanism the solution?’
Beat in her blood is a complex thriller, its multiple plot strands meriting more than one read and, as the first in the Heavy Metal series, there is much to look forward to from J.K.Ullrich.