Del Rey, 2002, 356 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-345-43528-1
Warning: This isn’t a review as much as it’s an explanation of why I pretty much ended up giving up on the novel mid-way through, then skimmed my way to the conclusion. While the platonic ideal of a review should only be written after a careful second re-read and with knowledge of the author’s entire oeuvres (along with a thorough knowledge of the author’s socio-cultural context), I happen to think that there’s a certain place for descriptions of failures along the way, if only as a billet d’humeur to recalibrate everyone’s expectations.
So it is that I should state up-front that Bear is the very definition of an uneven writer. While he has written some astonishingly great novels (Moving Mars, The Forge of God, Eon, Blood Music), many of his other books have been dullness given hard covers. His bibliography ping-pongs between good and bad so inconsistently that it may not be an accident if this if it took until 2009 for me to try anything he’s written in the 21st century.
In context, Vitals fits in Bear’s years-long flirtation with the technothriller. From the contemporary SF action of 1999’s Nebula-winning Darwin’s Radio to 2005’s Quantico, Bear spent most of a decade writing near-future stories with a thriller template. Vitals plays a familiar tune for genre readers, as it shows a Science Fiction-minded author tackling issues in current settings, usually with an eye toward a mainstream audiences and sales. See: Kress, Nancy; Williams, Walter Jon; Sawyer, Robert J.; etc.
The first few pages of Vitals are pretty good: As a scientist descends to the ocean floor in company of an increasingly perturbed submarine pilot, we’re introduced to the scientist’s work in life-extension. A few things are unfocused, but it’s just the beginning of the novel. By the time the pilot turns nuts in a confined space thousands of meters below the sea level, it’s hard not to become involved.
By the time our narrator has returned to the surface, seen other instances of people behaving badly, being almost accused of murder, and finding out that his twin brother is dead, two things are becoming clear about Vitals: It’s a story with intriguing ideas, and it’s being badly told. While well-paced thrillers ratchet up the tension with nearly-audible clicks, Vitals muddles forward and sideways and even back when, midway through, we switch narrators and go back a few months previously. There’s a mushy, indistinct quality to Vitals that’s hard to reconcile with the demands of a tautly-told thriller. The fact that the protagonists often have their head messed with isn’t much of an excuse; instead, it’s confusion and vagueness all the way through. The lack of clear characters doesn’t help, and neither do the various attempts to one-up the action with paranoid killer schemes. (This is another one of those novels where an exotic way of killing someone ends up used in every possible fashion, rather than more direct and effective methods that could end the narrative right there. Ah, give a toy to an SF writer…)
By the time we piece together a Soviet conspiracy that hides a microbial conspiracy, it’s far too late to care even about such a globe-spinning premise: Vitals has faded away, and the only reason to rush to the conclusion is to see whether it will conclude or just drop away. (Well, that and to spot the Stalin cameo.) But this novel does not conclude: it runs out of ideas, looks around dazedly, gives up and terminates. What kills Vitals isn’t the nature of the far-out ideas, but their lousy execution. Another writer would have been able to do something fantastic with them, but not Bear: Vitals is too long, too sloppy and too uninterested in what it’s saying —although I may be projecting that last flaw onto the novel.
It also justifies my continued coolness toward anything that Bear has written since 1995. (His new City at the End of Time? Not before I see it on sale, baby!) I don’t seem to be alone: Go look at the awful 2.5-stars average Amazon reviews for what seems like a consensus opinion on Vitals. This may have been a personal rant, but my disappointment hardly seems unique whenever this novel is concerned.