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July/August 2017
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A Report from Group 17, by Robert C. O'Brien (1972)

NOT prolific, Robert C. O'Brien (1918-1973) experienced such success with Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and Z for Zachariah that his other two novels are overshadowed. A Report from Group 17 deserves wider recognition for its still timely themes, deft spy-thriller frissons and The Collector—level creepiness.

The Soviets own a grandfathered freehold in the countryside near Washington, D.C. There, ex-Nazi and Mengele avatar Dr. Schutz is ostensibly conducting germ warfare experiments. But in reality, he is secretly running his own trials for a private drug, derived decades ago from an ancient Peruvian site, which has the effect of rendering people sheep-like, tractable slaves bereft of motivation or resistance. American scientist Fergus O'Neil is tasked by the CIA with learning the secrets of the enclave—into which a local tween girl, Allison Adam, has been abducted, to serve as Schutz's ultimate guinea pig.

O'Brien's characterization is restrained yet powerful. Allison's "Harriet the Spy" vibe allures, and her degradation is painful. Other family dynamics—mother and sibs—resonate. O'Neil is competent, intellectual—yet reasonably trepidatious. Schutz is Faustian, yet far from insane. That both men are pursuing pure science by their differing lights illustrates the hazy barriers between good and evil. In this age of CRISPR, the plot's tech is obsolete. But in the age of the Zika virus, the consequences still hit home.

Ironically, Schutz escapes to continue his experimentation. That one of the effects of his plague in its victims is "a general slackness in dress…promptness…neatness" might indicate he succeeded. Just look around you!

—Paul Di Filippo

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