Vampire novel as a work of first-rate science fiction

Scott Westerfeld is a hell of a writer and a hell of a nice guy. He's prolific as anything, and he hops between genres with amazing, acrobatic effortlessness. I met him a couple years back at the World Science Fiction Convention in Toronto, and I liked him so much that I was actually reluctant to read his books -- it's really rotten to meet writers whom you really get on with and then discover that you don't much care for their books, so sometimes it's safer just to avoid their works (neurotic as that may sound).

But last year Scott gave me a copy of his smart-ass young adult mystery novel So Yesterday, and I decided to risk it -- the blurb really made it sound like my cup of tea, and anyone as fun to talk to as Scott is couldn't possibly be a bad writer. I wasn't disappointed: So Yesterday was one of the most memorable books I read last year.

Keeping up with Scott's writing is nontrivial. He publishes about two novels a year, ranging from heavy duty space operas to young adult trilogies to snappy YA novels like So Yesterday. But this year at WorldCon, I was privileged to get a copy of Peeps, Scott's newest YA novel, pressed into my hands by Scott himself, and I've just pounded through it while I should have been getting over my jetlag in a St Petersburg hotel room.

Peeps is a science fiction vampire novel written for young people. It concerns a parasitologist who is a carrier for a perfectly realized, scientifically justifiable strain of vampirism. Cal, the parasitologist hero, is in the employ of an ancient secret society headquartered in New York's bowels -- a society that goes all the way back to the days of New Amsterdam and is the oldest secret society in the Americas, edging out the Masons by a couple decades. Cal's job is hunting down vampires -- "Parasite Positives" or "Peeps" -- and the rats who act as disease-reservoirs for their infections.

The story rockets along at an amazing pace, benefitting greatly from Westerfeld's breezy, wisecracking prose-style (think of Douglas Coupland crossed with a really good science writer like Steven Jay Gould). The action chapters alternate with engaging short chapters on the minutiae (heh) of parasitology, lucid scientific explanations of the role of parasites in the world and our body. Between the science and the mystery, Peeps is practically impossible to put down.

Scott's managed to write a vampire novel without ever once visiting the tired old tropes of horror fiction. Instead, he invents marvelous, scientific explanations for the characteristics of vampirism, like the anathema effect. Evolutionary pressure on infected Peeps to escape their home villages (where their cannibalism arouses the torch-wielding ire of their former neighbors) favors a mutant strain of the parasite the flips the "love" reactions in the brain to "hate" reactions, causing peeps to flee home for distant quarters, living longer, spreading the bug further. That's why religious peeps fear crosses.

This is some seriously inventive science fiction, written in an engaging style that's bound to spark young readers' interest in biology and parasitology (there's a short bibliography on parasites at the end of the novel). For adults, this scientific take on a hoary old subject will inspire admiration in the ability of an original talent to mine fresh ore from even the oldest veins.

As cities grew, with more police and bigger lynch mobs, peeps had to adopt new survival strategies to stay hidden. They learned to love the night and see in the dark, until the sun itself became anathema to them.

But come on: They don't burst into flame in daylight. They just really, really hate it.

The anathema also created some familiar vampire legends. If you grew up in Europe in the Middle Ages, chances are you were a Christian. You went to church at least twice a week, prayed three times a day, and had a crucifix hanging in every room. You made the sign of the cross every time you ate food or wished fro good luck. So it's not surprising that most peeps back then had major cruciphobia -- they could actually be repelled by the sight of a cross, just like in the movies.