Frameshift, Robert J. Sawyer

Tor, 1997, 347 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86325-X

Ideally, a reviewer’s subjectivity should be as “pure” as possible, if such a thing is possible. Shallow, transient things like the weather, sentimental problems and temporary physical discomfort aren’t supposed to affect judgement on artistic ventures. The very worst sin, of course, is to let monetary matters affect judgement: Reviewers aren’t supposed to calculate things like money/enjoyment ratios.

And yet, that was what happened while reviewing Frameshift.

Robert J. Sawyer is one of the most exciting authors of the nineties. His seven previous books compose an impressive body of work: His sixth book, The Terminal Experiment won a Nebula and was nominated for a Hugo. The seventh, Starplex, also garnered both nominations. Yet, all of Sawyer’s books had been published in paperback until Frameshift, his first hardcover publication from Tor.

Frameshift begins in mid-plot like the two latest Sawyer novels, when a creepy assailant attempts to kill protagonist Pierre Tardivel. Sharp-eyed readers will already pick up a few unsettling details in this prologue, but before anyone can catch their breath, flashback and we’re back in linear time again. The time and place: Treblinka Concentration Camp, August 1943.

Before long, we’re back in then nineties and Nazi war criminals, insurance company hijinks and genetic diseases are converging toward an exciting climax. The plot is complex but fast-paced: Frameshift is an exceptional book to take along to the beach. Sawyer’s style remains economical and pleasingly clear. Hard-SF fans will be pleased to note that the scientific content of the novel seems exact, and there is rather a lot of genetic jargon. Finally, the conclusion is satisfying. Closing the book, one can’t help but thinking that this was time well-spent.

But, if Frameshift is such an entertaining novel, why the disappointment? Part of the answer lies with the fact that Frameshift is Sawyer’s less science-fictionish book yet. Only one element (albeit a big one) stops the novel from being classifiable as a techno-thriller.

Also disappointing is the almost preachy angle of the book: Genetics, Sawyer tells us, can really mess up your life. To demonstrate this, it seems that almost every supporting character has a genetic problem of some kind. This quickly gets tiresome, like a talented musician always playing the same melody with only a few variations.

Then there is Pierre Tardivel, another one of Sawyer’s typical protagonists. Granted, he is much more vulnerable than the others, but the mold is the same: Adult well-educated white male, etc… The protagonist is not the only thing reminiscent of Sawyer’s other novels: His emphasis on theology and marital problems (Read: Adultery) also comes back, albeit in a less-central role than in The Terminal Experiment. The plotting is also awfully convenient at times…

As a French-Canadian, it was pleasant to see -finally!- a French-Canadian protagonist in a Science-Fiction novel written by an Anglophone author. Yet, a few things didn’t quite ring true: Few self-respecting Québécois would be caught dead shouting “Morceau de Merde!” (A literal translation of “Piece of s…!”) when a good old “Enfant de Chienne!” (literally; “Son of a b….”) does so well… But that’s a detail.

Even devoted Sawyer fans might want to think twice before buying Frameshift in hardcover. Others will certainly want to take a look at it as soon as it comes out in paperback.

[January 1998: I was skittish bout not liking this over as much as Sawyer’s others novels. However, I’m heartened to find that I’m not the only one to think along the same lines…]

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