Crown, 2015, 384 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-553-41829-3
So … it took April Fool’s Day to get me reading fiction again.
Let me explain. Over the past few years, I have almost entirely stopped reading fiction. I can blame various factors, but the truth is that I’ve fallen out of the habit and while I still think that written fiction is a noble and fun activity, I find myself watching movies, reading up on the endless circus of American politics or simply doing other things rather than cracking open a book. I have no doubts that, in time, I will gravitate back to written fiction. Right now, though, it’s a bit of a struggle. Having a smartphone is great for ebooks, but it’s also great for just about everything else as well.
April Fools’ Day was a chance to do better. You have to understand that I don’t particularly like the festivities of April First. I don’t particularly like putting false information in my brain, and given the raging epistemological debate we seem to be having thanks to the Trump administration, this disdain for fake facts, even funny ones, reached a breaking point this year. So, I decided to unplug for a day. No news. No blogs. No forums. No social media. No exposure to made-up stories passing themselves off as reality.
But what do to with all of that extra time? Well, I decided to read fiction. I’ve had my eye on Peter Clines’ The Fold for a few months (great cover, arresting blurb, unknown author—it didn’t take much more than that to get me going when I was reading 200+ novels per year) and decided that a self-imposed exile from the net could be a great way to plunge back into fiction.
It actually worked. In a sobering demonstration of what’s made possible when you stop reading Reddit, I ended up reading most of The Fold in a single day, in small increments as I substituted reading prose instead of refreshing feeds. Hurrah!
Unfortunately, I can’t say that I’m all that taken with The Fold, especially during its last third. In the grand tradition of SF novels built on mysteries, it’s no surprise if the tease is better than the revelation, if the promise of a mind-blowing explanation is far better than the collapsing of those probabilities in a single observation.
But let’s enjoy the premise again as hyper-smart protagonist Mike, hiding away his prodigious intelligence as a high school English teacher, is recruited by an old classmate to investigate a mysterious research facility. The scientists there claim to have invented instantaneous teleportation, but there’s something strange about their experiment. The interminable delay between proof-of-concept and publishing their results. The lack of documentation. The constant frictions between team members. Not to mention the very strange episode in which a test subject was institutionalized after claiming that he didn’t know his wife. As an outsider with a perfect photographic memory, Mike should be able to piece together the pieces of the puzzle … right?
The novel’s first third enjoyably sets up the parameters of the investigation and takes us to the San Diego lab in which this is taking place. The second third ups the tension with even stranger developments, a few revelations and even deeper mysteries. While the characters aren’t that memorably portrayed, there’s a pleasant tension to the proceedings as our protagonist knows that he’s seen as the enemy … and small mysteries just keep accumulating. This is a kind of Science Fiction I like a lot—set in the real world but with just enough of an intrusion from the future to be interesting. The puzzle-box aspect of the central mystery has readers developing their own theories as to what is happening (I had my own theories about members of the team secretly building more teleportation nodes), and as long as anything isn’t pinned down then everything is still possible.
Then the answers start coming down and we realize that The Fold is far more wobbly than at a first glance. The novel loses credibility once Victorian science is brought in. It loses a little bit more credibility once the nature of The Fold is explained (raising further inconsistencies in trying to explain inconsistencies) and then pretty much goes into lalaland once the novel switches gear to a bog-standard portal horror mode. There’s a difference between “seen this before and it still interests me” and “seen this before and I’m not that interested” that’s clearly shown in the evolution from The Fold’s first to third act. I was able to forgive much of the prose’s clumsiness as long as I wanted to know more. It got worse when I stopped being fascinated, though. (It also explains why I read most but not all of the book on a single day.) It doesn’t help, either, that The Fold’s own set of internal values quickly go from Science Fiction (new technology! How awesome!) to horror (this abomination must be destroyed at all costs!) along the way—I read Science Fiction because I like SF’s ethos of progress through technology, not because I was looking for another lesson in how Pandora must be put back in its box. For one thing, Hope was at the bottom of Pandora’s box—and for another, there’s no doubt that what’s been created once can be re-created, and the curiously lackadaisical response from a few “Men in Black” late in the novel feels like a dramatic miscalculation that critically wounds the novel rather than enhance it.
I won’t hammer The Fold much further for a weaker third act—such is the most common fate of any novel building itself around a mystery rather than more straightforward plotting. The Fold isn’t the first nor the last SF novel to lose interest as it reveals everything. To focus on the positive, I really like the protagonist’s unique skills and the various defences he has developed against them—at a time when ever-knowledgeable protagonists are often portrayed as a justified psychopath (as in: nearly every Sherlock-inspired character out there), Mike stands as a beacon of excessive humility. There’s a cute romance woven through, even though I think some details of it are off. When I say that The Fold could have been a Preston/Child novel, I’m not being as dismissive as you may think.
From a purely personal perspective, coming back to fiction after a lengthy pause only to wrestle with a novel with such clearly defined strengths and weaknesses is like coming home. As a reviewer, I enjoy getting down and dirty with a flawed work. It’s good sport—in fact, voicing objections to a novel is the point of reading critically. Keep your perfect novels and your unmitigated trash to yourself—right now, I’d rather have more fun nitpicking and recognizing passing competence in a novel with both highs and lows. Reading fiction is supposed to be fun, after all. One thing’s for sure: I won’t wait an entire year to turn off the wireless and get lost in another novel.