White Devils

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Paul McAuley: White Devils (2004)

Contributed by Sarah Herbe

Paul McAuley's White Devils is a near-future science fiction thriller that presents a post-world-war and post-plague world. The genetic modification of plants, animals and humans has become an everyday issue, highlighting the dangerous and destructive potential when genetic engineering gets out of control.


Paul McAuley was born in England on 23 April 1955 and lives in London. Before becoming a full time writer of novels and short stories, and a reviewer for science fiction magazines, he worked as a researcher in biology and a lecturer on botany. His first novel, Four Hundred Billion Stars, published in 1988, won the Philip K. Dick Award. Furthermore, his novel Fairyland (1995) won both the Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best science fiction novel published in Britain and the John W. Campbell Award for the best science fiction novel of the year.

Selected Publications


Four Hundred Billion Stars (Four Hundred Billion Stars, 1988; Secret Harmonies, 1989; Eternal Light, 1991); Confluence (Child of the River, 1997; Ancients of Days, 1998; Shrine of Stars, 1999)


Red Dust (1993); Pasquale's Angel (1994); Fairyland (1995); Ship of Fools (1999); Making History (2000); The Secret of Life (2001); Whole Wide World (2001), Mind's Eye (2005); Players (2007); Cowboy Angels (2007); The Quiet War (2008)

Collections of Short Stories

The King of the Hill and Other Stories (1991); The Invisible Country (1996); Little Machines (2004)

Non-Fiction (a selection)

"The Future" (SFWA Magazine; 1997); "Mad; Bad; and Dangerous to Know. Science in Fiction" (Guardian, 1999); "Romancing the Red Planet" (Guardian, 1999); "Getting About in the Future" (T3, 2000); "Junk Yard Universes" (Locus, 2003); "Building a Library: The Human Genome" (The Independent on Sunday's Talk of the Town Magazine, 2004)

Main Characters

Nicholas Hyde - an English ex-soldier and biologist in his twenties. He is set on hunting down and discovering what the "white devils" are after having seen them kill his colleague, Tremaine. He turns out to be his dead brother's clone.

Tremaine Thompson - a middle-aged American forensic specialist who is killed by the white devils in an ambush.

Cody Corbin - a deeply religious mercenary and professional killer (an eco-terrorist). Knowing no mercy, he wants to fight everything that is genetically modified, or that that was not made by God the Creator. He believes himself to be fully in the right whatever he does.

Elpeth Faber - a successful paleanthropologist who was born in Africa but grew up in Boston. She becomes Nicholas' lover.

Matthew Faber - Elspeth's father. A notorious scientist who discovered the so-called "engrams" (behavioural paradigms, neuronal patterns), with the help of which people can be emotionally re-programmed. Showing signs of a multiple personality disorder ever since a mysterious laboratory accident, it turns out that his mind was deliberately changed by Daniel Lovegrave.

Daniel Lovegrave - an ageing scientist with a serious drug habit. He was involved in the creation of the Gentle People and the white devils.

Teryl Meade - Matthew Faber's ex-wife. She used to work with Faber and Lovegrave on the re-creation of extinct species and engram programming. Having publicly renounced genetic engineering after a row with her two fellow scientists, she joins Obligate, the organisation which, more or less, owns the Congo, and is bent on extinguishing all genetically engineered animals, creatures, and plants.

Raphael - a gangster boss who keeps cloned and re-created animals at his safari ranch.

Teddy Yssel - an alcoholic ex-pilot who used to work for Raphael.

Harmony Boniface - a journalist who supports Nick's search for the truth, but is killed by the white devils.

Captain Nsanzuwera - an unscrupulous soldier who took control of a mission in the Dead Zone.


White Devils is set in the first half of the twenty-first century in post-world-war, post-plague Africa, mainly in the Congo (renamed Green Congo by Obligate, the environmentally-friendly transnational corporation that literally runs the country), Nairobi and Kenya. The latter part of the novel is set in the Dead Zone, a vast, uninhabitable area destroyed by a virus that was set free by accident when a laboratory was attacked by Americans in an attempt to fight bioterrorism.


Nicholas Hyde's colleague, Tremaine Thompson, is killed by small, ape-like, yet extremely fierce white creatures during an operation investigating war atrocities in the jungle of the Congo. The crew bring back a specimen of the strange creatures, called "white devils" by the locals, and a child they managed to rescue. Intrigued by the white devils and anxious to find out what has killed his friend, Nicholas is set on finding out what the white devils are and who is responsible for their creation. In a world with genetically modified plants and animals, it seems likely that they are a specially bred species. However, before Nick can have a closer look at the dead white devil's body, it is taken away by Obligate, an influential transnational organisation that largely rules the Congo and opposes genetic engineering of any kind. Nick gets no support in trying to find out what the white devils are. The authorities want him to believe that the creatures are simply child soldiers who are painted white and are on drugs. It becomes obvious that his investigations have brought him into dangerous territory when a scientist, who he asked to analyse a blood sample of the dead white devil, disappears, as does the baby who he rescued from the white devils. The only one interested in uncovering the mysterious case seems to be the journalist, Harmony Boniface, who has some clues about where in the vast jungle the white devils can be found. In order to get there, Nick and Harmony have to team up with the men of Raphael, a notorious gangster boss. In the jungle, they are ambushed by the white devils and Harmony Boniface is killed, but Nick rescues Harmony's camera and broadcasts the footage. Following Nick's public appearance, it comes to light that he is clone of his brother who was killed in a car accident – something that proves a great problem for Nick because his mother expects him to replace his dead brother. As the cloning of humans is still illegal, Nick needs a place to hide from the angry and curious public. Raphael offers him shelter on his remote ranch, where Nick is kept more or less a prisoner.

In the meantime, Teryl Meade, a high official of Obligate, has set up the professional killer Cody Corbin to eliminate her ex-husband Matthew Faber and his Gentle People – genetically engineered australopithecines who lack the genetic code responsible for aggressive behaviour. Corbin agrees, seeing Faber as a potential threat because, through him, it could become known that he was involved in the creation of the white devils. Elspeth Faber, Matthew's daughter and a successful paleanthropologist, manages to escape from her father's estate when Cody Corbin and his companions kill her father and destroy all evidence of the Gentle People. Elspeth has also heard of the white devils and believes that they are connected to the Pleistocene Park Project: an experiment her father initiated involving the re-creation of extinct animals and the Gentle People. Elspeth wants to find Daniel Lovegrave, her father's former partner, because she is convinced that he has something to do with the creation of the white devils. Elspeth's and Nick's stories, told in parallel over long stretches of the novel, intersect when Teddy Issel, a former pilot and friend of Nick, brings Elspeth to Raphael's ranch. However, Cody Corbin is not far behind: from Teryl Meade he knows that Raphael keeps a re-created sabre-toothed tiger, and as Cody abhors every genetically engineered organism, he comes to the farm to shoot the tiger and some of the people who happen to be around. Elspeth, Nick and Teddy escape, and Teddy promises to bring them to Daniel Lovegrave's supposed dwelling place at the heart of the Dead Zone, a vast inhospitable area destroyed by an escaped virus. Nick and Elspeth, who both pursue the aim of discovering the origin of the white devils, fall in love during their ride through the Dead Zone. They do not fully trust Teddy, who leads them right into the arms of Captain Nsanzuwera, the corrupt commander who took control of a former mission in the Dead Zone, for whom a drug-addicted Daniel Lovegrave now works. Lovegrave supplies the brutal captain's men with genetic body modifications and also transforms their minds by manipulating the structure of their engrams. The mission is to find the place from where the white devils managed to escape: they are kept in cages along with other genetically engineered animals for Captain Nsanzuwera's amusement. Nick is put into one of the cages as well, awaiting his announced fight against one of the white devils. Managing to escape and, together with Cody Corbin, who has followed suit and killed Teryl Meade on his way to the Dead Zone, he goes about eliminating the central wrongdoers of the mission: those who were trying to turn children into white devils in order to use them as killing machines.

In the meantime, Elspeth is brought to Daniel Lovegrave, who is instructed to manipulate her engrams in order to make her obedient to Captain Nsanzuwera. Instead, he informs her of the real origin of the white devils. After killing the captain and Cody Corbin, Nick releases the modified children and the mission workers, and leaves the Dead Zone – but not without taking the last specimen of the white devils with him. Leaving the Dead Zone via a ship on the Congo River and heading towards a new life, Elspeth finally tells Nick the truth about the white devils: they are Matthew Faber's and Daniel Lovegrave's genetically modified clones.

Interest Areas

Body Transformations

In White Devils, body modifications are in vogue. There are, for example, gene modifications that result in bleached skin, infrared-eysight or luminous tattoos. While these are brought about voluntarily, the "plastic disease" is an illness caused by genetically engineered bacteria transmitted by blackflies. It leads first to a softening of human tissue and then to paralysis.

Apart from transformations on a genetic level, there are also more crude attempts to modify bodies in White Devils: through the implantation of sharp, spiked teeth in children, criminals try to reshape them "white devils", the latter being genetically modified clones.


The central applications of bioengineering in White Devils include cloning and the re-creation of extinct life forms.

Life Creation

The Gentle People are reverse-engineered, re-created australopithecines afarensis, whose engram for hostility towards alien species has been excised, hence their name. While their creators claim that they made the Gentle People using chimpanzee ova, it is revealed in the course of the novel that actually human ova were used, something that is against the law.


The second application of bioengineering is to bring back and re-create individuals that have only recently died. Nick, the protagonist, turns out to be his brother's clone. The fact that Nick's mother, with the help of an Italian doctor, had her first son cloned after his premature death, seems to be directly inspired by, Severino Antinori, the real-life Italian scientist who is determined to be the first to clone a human. Concerns about the possible ailments of cloned humans, stirred by observations that cloned animals are prone to suffer from certain diseases and weaknesses, are also reflected in the character of Nick, who has a heart attack at an early age. Furthermore, the novel raises the problematic issue that cloning a lost child might bring back a copy of the 'original': Nick resembles his brother outwardly, but not in character, and he refuses to act as a mere replacement – something his mother is not willing to accept.

The "white devils" are also clones, but they share the genetic material of the two scientists who created them. The technique employed to create them is referred to as the "standard Roslin technique", a direct allusion to the work of the Roslin Institute where Dolly, the first cloned sheep, was born in 1997.


People can be made happier and more content by "Emotional Reorientation". This is a neuromagnetic process in which certain engrams (behavioural paradigms, neuronal patterns), such as those in which aggressive or animal instinctive behaviour are encoded, are erased, whilst others, for instance, those responsible for empathy and self-confidence, are strengthened. The manipulation of engrams can also be used for more dangerous and harmful purposes, such as conditioning people to make them either more aggressive and violent or more loyal against their will.

Critical Commentary

White Devils was marketed as a mainstream thriller when it was first published by Simon & Schuster in 2004. With the book being referred to as a "scientific thriller", a "techno-thriller" and a "near-future thriller" by reviewers, some saw McAuley, who had been perceived mainly as a science fiction writer until that point, entering the mainstream market. Indeed, it was felt that he was bridging the gap between science fiction and the mainstream thriller with this novel (Sheryl Morgan). McAuley himself thought of White Devils as "near-future SF", which thematically forms a trilogy with his novels Fairyland (1995) and The Secret of Life (2001).

The novel draws on various traditions. McAuley’s long and detailed scientific explanations, such as that of the structure of DNA or the process of cloning, are based upon real genetics, making White Devils akin to hard science fiction: the novel’s pace, ceaseless chases and violent killings make it a thriller. White Devils has been compared to the works of Michael Crichton, especially Jurassic Park, with the exception that the science used in White Devils is "harder" and more concrete. The constant search for truth and answers, which goes hand in hand with a physical and perilous journey into the heart of the Dead Zone, puts the novel in the tradition of a quest story. Drawing heavily on Joseph Conrad, not only in terms of setting and plot structure, but also in the creation of characters (Lovegrave is obviously modelled on Kurtz), White Devils has been called "a convincing visit to a near future Heart of Darkness" (Greg Bear). The landscape, devastated by a recent war and – supposedly – biological weapons, together with the grim tone, also echo another work inspired by Conrad's novella, namely Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 anti-war film Apocalypse Now. The characters Daniel Lovegrave and Matthew Faber join the ranks of infamous mad scientists in science fiction (the text even refers explicitly to Dr Frankenstein and Dr Moreau in various places).

However, not all the scientists portrayed in the novel are shown to be mad. White Devils is marked by an ethic ambivalence reflected in a variety of scientists: those who are committed to their research for the advancement of the human race, corrupt scientists, those who sell their services to government facilities and transnational corporations; and idealistic gene-hackers, so called "biopunks", who judge scientific methods by their applicability and claim free availability.

Published at a time when speculation about human cloning and designer babies was a widely-discussed topic, the novel addresses many different issues at the same time. Not only does it deal with the possible consequences of biotechnology gone wild (be it the cloning of humans, genetically engineered crops or the mutation of engineered bacteria), it also tackles the neo-colonial ambitions of transnational European and American corporations to rule Africa, religious fanaticism, and the exploitation of child soldiers. In connection with the near-congruency of the human and chimpanzee genome, the question of what it means to be human is also posed in White Devils, as are ethical questions about cloning and the use of "human material" in the (re)creation of a new species.

While most reviews laud White Devils for being multi-layered, they still accuse it of trying to do too many things at the same time, which ultimately leads to a dilution of its effectiveness. However, in 2005, White Devils was short-listed for the John W. Campbell Award and nominated for the British Fantasy Best Novel Award. It was reprinted in 2008.

Critical Bibliography


http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/books/reviews/story.jsp%3Fstory=494175 (21. 12. 04)

http://www.sfsite.com/06a/wd177.htm (25. 06. 08)

http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/fantasticfiction/whitedevils.htm (25. 06. 08)

http://www.emcit.com/emcit103.shtml#Heavy (25. 06. 08)

http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/crime/0,6121,1152546,00.html (21. 12. 04)


http://www.omegacom.demon.co.uk/ (official website of Paul McAuley's)

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