A review of The Hydra by Graham Stull

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Hydra
By Graham Stull
Ribbit Books
Paperback: 346 pages, April 15, 2015, ISBN-13: 978-0993265006

The year is 2020. Brian Matterosi is a world-renowned biologist who has engineered the Hydra virus, which has sterilised a large proportion of the world’s population. Matterosi is on trial for genocide, and as public enemy number one, his high-profile trial will make or break its two key attorneys, defence attorney Art Blume, and prosecutor Leeton Kgabu, both of whom know themselves to be in the right, and certain of winning.

As the trial progresses, the subtle issues underlying Matterosi’s crime make it clear that there is no obvious right and wrong, and that guilt is everywhere. Though he’s cured many forms of Cancer through his research and single-handedly solved overpopulation and a number of other human created ills, Matterosi isn’t exactly a hero you can warm to. Nevertheless, Stull creates a character memorable and believable enough to draw the reader in as the complex web surrounding Matterosi’s backstory, narrated as a confessional tape, mingles with the unfolding events through the trial. The plot is super fast paced, with enough cliffhangers, a touch of romance, and plenty of excellent and very well informed science (think Atwood in Oryx and Crake) to keep the pages turning faster than you can say “overpopulation.”

The story itself is one that is all too likely, presenting a dystopia grounded in current predictions—a ‘what will life be like’ as we grapple with our growing population, greenhouse gasses, global warming and food shortage. It’s an uncomfortable but compelling vision, not just in terms of Matterosi’s world saving/destructive infertility virus, another nod to Oryx and Crake, but also the way in which capitalism has run amok, with the International Criminal Court’s super powers granted by the recently ratified Abuja Treaty, and media conglomerates (“GlobalSix Entertainment”) running the show and governmental politicking taking precedent over ‘truth’ – a shifting notion in this very thought-provoking book:

Art knew from the research his team had done that it was kitted out with dozens of monitors and hundreds of controls. GlobalSix Entertainment could control more than just the screenshot that would be beamed into every home on the planet. They could control the lighting, the sound on the judges’ microphones, even the temperature in the room.

For all its dystopian imagery, and legal thriller positioning, The Hydra has its humorous moments, mostly around the ridiculous conjunction of power and entertainment; politics and human frailty. For example, GlobalSix’s “Trial Manager” Rachel Hyberg, visits Kgabu in his room with a USB stick containing the first part of Matterosi’s taped confession. When he asks where she got it, she replies:

“We’re a media company,” she answered with a coy smile. Reality TV is one of GlobalSix’s main areas of activity. Surveillance security systems are another.”

Matterosi’s childhood is often poignant, as he describes his mother’s demise and the painful ousting from his peer group lunch table:

When the time finally came everyone was in their normal places. My place was empty as I would have expected, But when I went to sit down with my lunch tray, Rasher authoritatively placed his folder down on the hard, bum-shaed plastic seat.

“It’s taken,” he announced. I looked at him. He glared back. I turned to Jessie. He looked a bit sheepish, but the group dynamic lent him strength of purpose.

“We don’t want you sitting here anymore, Brian,” Jessie announced. “Go find somewhere else to sit.” This was the ultimate betrayal. My whole clique turned against me.

No one in The Hydra is entirely innocent – even those who appear to be at first. Nothing is quite as it seems, and there are no easy moral answers. Though The Hydra reads like a fast-paced easy thriller, with enough twists and turns to keep any reader guessing right to the rather unexpected ending, it’s no light read. There are some very serious themes in this novel that are subtly handled with dramatic irony and a rich exploration of the implications of a world in serious crisis. The Hydra is a superbly written genre-busting thriller that will keep the reader guessing, and thinking long after the book is done.