Bantam Spectra, 2002, 370 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-29824-0
The end of a story is important.
Maybe not as important as some unsophisticated audiences may think it is: it’s not as if a happy ending can magically transform a bad story into a masterpiece of fuzzy comfort. It’s not as if an ending where everyone gets hit by a bus somehow imbues literary qualities to an incoherent novel. There’s no magical axis with good stories on one side, and some types of endings on the other.
But at the same time, there are many novels on my shelves that are memorable for everything save the ending. I will remember premises, characters, scenes and specific quotes, but the ending itself remains a blank. Even who dies or not can fade away with time. Endings are less important in novels that are sure-footed from the get-go. It’s those tightrope novels (“Is it this or that? Do I like it or not?”) that really live or die on the basis of their endings.
Appropriate endings solidify the effect that the author was looking for. Mishandled endings leave behind a doubt, either in the value of the story or in the skill of the storyteller. One particularly toxic type of ending, for instance, negates the entirety of what came before, making the reader feel as if the story was a big waste of time. You can’t kill your thriller protagonist, leave your romance heroine single or allow your Dark Lord to triumph without expecting some reaction from your readers.
As you may expect, this long-winded introduction does have some relevance to any discussion of Michael Kube-McDowell Vectors, a novel that teeters on the precipice of… something during almost all of its length, only to be pushed into the void by an ending that simply resolves which kind of novel it truly is.
At first glance, it looks like one of those good old follow-the-extrapolation Science Fiction novel, much like Kube-McDowell’s collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, The Trigger. Here, a scientist studying the nature of consciousness (through means that are only rationalized by an adequate amount of techno-mumble-mumble) lucks out by finding provocative evidence of reincarnation. After initially refusing to acknowledge the consequence of his discovery, our protagonist comes to embrace the evidence.
From this trite summary alone, it sure looks as if this is classic SF stuff, not too far away from Robert J. Sawyer’s The Terminal Experiment or any of the stories in which previously-rational scientists are confronted with very upsetting ideas. I’m actually a sucker for that kind of tale, which (when done right) can illuminate the difference between belief and reality, between theory and truth. For a while, Vectors works well on these terms.
It may not be a particularly sophisticated piece of work, but it’s readable enough, and can hold anyone’s interest. The writing is a bit rough in the usual SF fashion, but it’s clear enough that it scarcely matters. Far more troubling is the whole fast-love/quick-death subplot, which feels far too contrived to be effective. (From the first hot torrid glances, it simply sounds too good to be plausible.) There’s also plenty to say about a seemingly interminable segment at mid-book in which the protagonist goes in the wilderness to learn about reincarnation from real pros.
But even as our hero takes action to crack the puzzle and solve the problem, doubts begin to grow as the number of remaining pages dwindles down without much movement forward. The ending, when is comes, finally lets the novel fall into a different territory –that of a meditative, almost moody piece on the nature of consciousness. One that feels as if it stops right at the moment where things finally got interesting. The ending crystallizes incipient disappointment and (much like the main character fears) does feel like a cop-out, an absurdly easy ending that could have happened two hundred pages earlier, compressing much of the story to components that would have been perfectly well explored in a short story.
It is obviously a deliberate ending. One that is is foreshadowed, however weakly, in the earlier parts of the book. But much as the author may feel satisfied with the way he has chosen to end his story, the reader can be allowed some disappointment. Does the ending work? It does. Does it work in the same way the rest of the novel does? Maybe not.