Tor, 1999, 308 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-56775-7
One should be lenient about an author’s first novel. The poor writer is just stretching his or her writing muscles without the benefit of latter career experience. Even though editors are there to prevent a first novel from going totally awry, there’s a limit to what they can do to correct amateur structural problems. Latter books are usually conceived with some experience with this whole publishing thing.
Being a book reader rather than a magazine reader, I’m not terribly familiar with Paul Levinson’s body of short stories. Still, Levinson’s “The Mendelian Lamp Case” was a bright spot in David G. Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF 3 anthology (1998), enough so that I could remember details of its premise -secret biological warfare between the Amish and another shadowy group- even years later. The Silk Code is a direct descendant of that short story, reprising most of it in its first section. But whereas protagonist/investigator Phil D’Amato escaped the short story leaving a few threads dangling, the novel goes deeper in the mystery, first by going back in time and then by telling the rest of the story.
The first section has problems, but they’re acceptable in the context of a short-story-turned-introduction. The pacing is a touch too rushed, for instance: as the deaths pile up, it feels as if the plot is moving too quickly for its own good. But it’s a rousing good read and a pretty unusual SF piece; what if, under our nose, overlooked “backwards” groups had managed to master what we consider to be high technology? Add to that the appeal of rural Pennsylvania as a fresh SF setting and it’s not hard to see why “The Mendelian Lamp Case” was so lauded. As the first part of a longer work, it’s not nearly as effective, but -who knows- maybe it would lead to better things.
Those “better things” certainly aren’t the second part of the book, a long detour through 750 AD history to make a point that is succinctly summarized later in the book. As a device to keep readers on the hook for the rest of the adventure, it works more as a roadblock than an interesting segue.
Things pick up in the third section onward. We’re back in contemporary times as Phil D’Amato is faced with an intriguing mystery as he has to entertain the possibility of Neanderthals living among us. Meanwhile, the occult war hinted at in the first section continues unabated, along with plenty of Amish tricks and weird occurrences. Levinson is a very smart man, and his considerable erudition shows throughout the book by way of digressions, exposition and educated conversations. Some are obvious, most are fascinating and many actually work quite well.
Which is more than I could say for the novel as a coherent unit. The breakneck pacing of the first section continues unabated and a ridiculous pile of corpses accumulates as the chapters fly by. Worse is the lack of clear focus, as D’Amato goes from one country, one faction, one mysterious character to another and another and yet another. There is a lot of movement, but not much development. The rushed conclusion feels forced, as if plot threads are cut rather than tied together. D’Amato himself seems like a curiously low-key investigator: I suppose that had I read other stories by Levinson, I might have some built-in sympathy for the character. But I haven’t, and so I don’t.
Then there’s the “Canadian thing”. It’s unfair to criticize a book based on a three-page humorous passage, but there’s a puzzling aside on pages 167-169 where D’Amato has to deal with obstinate Canadian custom officers (“’Will there be Canadian scientists at this seminar? Are you taking in account the contributions that Canadians have made in the area?’”) and praise New York at the expense of Toronto. Maybe this is based on real-life incidents; otherwise, well, it seemed a bit mean. (“What was the law here? Were you even innocent until proved guilty?”) I may have shrugged it off if it hadn’t confirmed a completely bone-headed comment about Canadian culture made by Levinson at Torcon3. Separately, both comments may have been dismissed; together, they indicate someone who ought to know better despite his erudition in other areas.
While “the Canadian thing” doesn’t amount to much in the overall scheme of things, it might have crystallized a latent disappointment with the way the novel is handled. Despite the fantastic concepts, the new ideas and the grand concepts, I wasn’t particularly bowled over by the overall sweep of the story. Here’s hoping I’m just being a cranky Canadian: Maybe his next novel will be better…