Tag Archives: Greg Bear

Quantico, Greg Bear

<em class="BookTitle">Quantico</em>, Greg Bear

Vanguard Press, 2008 revised edition of 2005 original, 478 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-1-59315-473-8

For readers, every new Greg Bear novel is an exercise in gambling. His career spans the best like the worst, although recent work have been on a downward trend. His forays in thriller fiction (Vitals) haven’t always been successful, and Quantico’s troubled path to publication (Vanguard Press isn’t a top-tier publisher for genre fiction, much less one of Greg Bear’s usual publishers) was not a promising sign.

Happily, it turns out that Quantico is merely average, and not a disaster of Vitals proportions. It’s a too-earnest techno-thriller convinced of its own self-importance and it’s generally duller than any genre reader has any right to expect, but it has a few ideas in its mind, and offers a number of interesting moments.

It takes place about a decade in the future, at a time where the United States are still deeply obsessed about the War on Terror. 9/11 has been followed by something called 10/4 (details unspecified), and the gloom of the Bush years still seems to be prevalent throughout the novel. The biggest difference is that home-grown terrorists seem to have become as dangerous as foreign ones: As the novel opens, FBI agents are on the verge of capturing an important cult leader. What they find in the wreckage of the operation, though, goes well beyond anything anyone had imagined: At a time where bio-terrorism is cheap, there’s a lot more to fear from viruses than explosives.

Perhaps the best thing about Quantico is its portrait of a future FBI where law-enforcement technology has kept up with threats. Bear has done his research, and the tools he gives to his heroes do much to ground his novel in foreseeable reality. The three young FBI agents who become the protagonist of the story are exemplary recruits, and through them he’s able to perpetuate the mystique of the Bureau. Quantico is also bolstered with what sounds like authentic police lore and lingo, making feel like an unusually well-detailed thriller at a time where spectacle seems de rigueur.

The plot itself isn’t quite so successful: it depends on an implausible yet tired antagonist (ah, the good old idiot-savant bio-terrorist…), meanders quite a bit on its way to a conclusion and generally feels like something we’ve seen far too often before. Part of the issue is that Bear may not know how to write thrillers on a sentence-per-sentence level. His flat narration makes little distinction between exposition and action scenes, with the result that even the book’s most suspenseful moments come across as flatter than they deserve.

All of that is damning enough, but then I realized midway through the novel that I wasn’t enjoying any of it. To put it simply, Quantico isn’t particularly good beach reading and it took me until the end of the novel to figure out why. As I waded in the supplementary material added to the mass-market paperback edition, my unease grew clearer: After a deleted scene, an afterword, a Q&A (badly edited to repeat almost verbatim passages from the afterword a few pages before) and a lengthy annotated bibliography, it struck me that Quantico wasn’t just begging to be taken seriously: It was demanding, with great force, to be accepted as a serious and important statement on the future of terrorism in the United States. Every appeal to authority, research and verisimilitude only underscored the misguided aims of the novel.

Basically, Quantico gave up on entertaining the reader before it even began. Self-obsessed with Making a Statement, it ends up being an annoyingly shrill retread of catastrophic thinking. It reads, even less than a year in the Obama administration, like an escaped convict from the Bush Terror Years, paranoid at even the slightest provocation, and retreating in its own safe place with somber declarations than only clear-eyed patriots can think about the unthinkable.

Somber predictions of doom and gloom with little escape aren’t exactly what I need from my entertainment reading. Genre reading protocols are amenable to pessimistic takes on reality (after all, it seems as if most thriller and military fiction writers are obsessed with ever-more-exotic threats to the fabric of the nation), but a good chunk of my favourite thrillers actually dare to envision the possibility of a better future… once threats are disposed of. Quantico is too dour, too obsessed with never-ending danger to be any fun. There’s a public for that, I suppose.

As I write this review and check my sources, I see that Quantico will soon be followed by Mariposa, a follow-up featuring most of the characters. This does not bode well: thrillers are rarely suited to recurring series… especially in dealing with consequences of previous volumes. Most writers avoid the problem by pretending that previous volumes don’t exist (something that still drives me slightly nuts about Lee Child’s “Reacher” series), but that supposes that previous volumes are worth reading at all. Given how Quantico struggles to even maintain a base level of interest , I’m not going to be among those special-ordering Mariposa upon publication. Especially if it still swears up and down to be taken seriously.

Vitals, Greg Bear

<em class="BookTitle">Vitals</em>, Greg Bear

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.

Darwin’s Radio, Greg Bear

Ballantine, 1999, 538 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-43524-9

At a time where reality is out-imagining science-fiction, is it any wonder if the line between the two is getting blurred? Michael Crichton has been making millions for decades by passing off a kind of science-fiction as something that could happen tomorrow. Isn’t it time for genre-grown SF authors to cash in on the mainstream moolah?

Surely Greg Bear’s reputation as a science-fiction author is unquestioned. While his novels have been hit-and-miss (Hit: Moving Mars. Miss: Dinosaur Summer. Your mileage will vary), it’s hard to say that the author of Blood Music is anything but a hard-core hard-SF writer. But even the paperback edition of Darwin’s Radio comes packaged as “Fiction” by generalist imprint Ballantine Books. It scrupulously avoids “Science-Fiction” on the cover and shyly mentions it once in the in-leaf blurbs. Bear isn’t the first one to leap from the SF ghetto to the bigger techno-thriller audience, but he’s not likely to be the last to annoy his core audience by doing so.

But enough fanboyish kvetching: what about the book? Here too, it’s impossible to avoid snarky comparisons to Crichton et al.: Darwin’s Radio begins sometime soon, with two separate discoveries that are obviously linked: a mass grave in Georgia and three Neanderthal-era bodies in the Austrian Alps. In the process, we’re introduced to the two main characters of the novel: biologist Kaye Lang and rogue academic Mitch Rafelson. In the accepted manner of such thrillers, clues accumulate, events start to snowball and pretty soon a horrible truth is uncovered: There is a virus out there which is doing very, very nasty stuff to expectant mothers. The end of the species may be in sight.

Now, before proceeding any further, let us highlight one very important thing: Science-fiction has not traditionally been very interested in the yucky stuff of procreation. Physics are fine insofar as they allow rockets and Big Dumb Object and space travel and rock-jawed starship captain heroes. But soft smelly biology, with its unreliable mechanisms and small-scale working, leads to the icky matters of reproduction, which in human terms leads to sex and emotions and relationships and uncomfortable things like that. I’ll come clean; as a science-fiction fan, I’m not alone in preferring the clean lines of a mile-long alien starship to the squishy stuff of pregnancies.

So when Bear uses Darwin’s Radio as an excuse to study the implications of a world-wide plague directly linked to reproduction, it’s difficult to remain unmoved and unconcerned. However bad the evening news are, they can’t touch the nightmare of widespread miscarriages, deformed babies and massive riots. It cuts close to the bone, and props have to be given to Bear for tackling such a subject.

Unfortunately, audacity isn’t enough: It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out that with two protagonists of reproductive age in a tale concerned with pregnancies, something will happen. It also doesn’t take much SF literacy to remember similar tales told with a much greater economy of means, in short stories less than a tenth of this length. Most of Darwin’s Radio is spent waiting for the next shoe to drop rather than more active plotting.

At least techno-geeks and bio-nerds will enjoy the technical details. There’s a lot of evolutionary speculations in the book, and while some of it is too scattered, it’s not a bad read. (Some questions seems to be purposefully left unsolved for the sequel, though.) This is where Bear’s background as a science-fiction writer resonates most clearly, through extensive jargon and reasonably convincing technical details.

As a science-fiction novel, it’s a bit basic. Hence my disapproval for Darwin’s Radio‘s Nebula Award for best Novel of 2000. It also, with hindsight, marks a turning point in Bear’s career, as his last three non-media novels (Including a sequel, Darwin’s Children) have also been in a techno-thrillerish vein. Good? Bad? If nothing else, Bear is hopefully getting filthy rich with Crichton’s target audience.

Dinosaur Summer, Greg Bear

Warner Books, 1998, 325 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-446-52098-5

There are probably no other working SF authors as frustrating as Greg Bear.

One part of his bibliography includes such masterpieces as Blood Music, Eon, The Forge of God or Moving Mars; Hugo-winning, hugely acclaimed novels of hard-SF with good characters and exciting prose.

The other part of Bear includes simple-but-boring novels like Strength of Stones and a slew of rather unmemorable novels written and published between 1975 and 1985. Even some highly ambitious latter works (Queen of Angels, Slant, Anvil of Stars) have significant flaws that have alienated many readers.

So, every new Bear novel is cause for suspense: Will it be a “Good Bear” novel or a “Boring Bear” novel? With Dinosaur Summer, bets seemed even more uncertain than usual: Even though the concept of writing a sequel to Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic The Lost World seemed iffy to modern SF readers, the original was so darn fun that one would have to work hard not to keep this same charming sense of excitement.

Unfortunately, Greg Bear fumbles it.

For one thing, he makes the mistake of making this an explicit “Young Adult” book by featuring a teenage protagonist. Letting aside my belief that the “Young Adult” market segment is a useless but lucrative market created by publishers for parents and libraries who should know better than to spoon-fed Holy Reading to teenager, I’ll simply note that most of my favorite novels, as a teen, simply delivered a good rousing story. The age of the protagonist had nothing to do with it.

But let’s leave some room for doubt. After all, Dinosaur Summer has marketed as a regular SF book, without any particular trappings of the “Young Adult” demographic segment.

It still doesn’t excuse a criminal waste of the reader’s time. Whereas The Lost World expedited its characters in harm’s way in almost no time, Dinosaur Summer ambles on like its namesakes and finally gets its first true thrilling “action” scene barely past the book’s midpoint. Worse, the writing style is almost complacently long-winded, with the predictable result that the reader’s attention is bound to wander off long before anything of interest happens. Dinosaur Summer is conceived as kind of an alternate history, with oodles of in-jokes you’ll probably miss if you blink. Okay, so Harry Harrihausen is a major character. That’s a good homage, and a pretty fun thing for him, but I don’t really get anything out of it. Samewise for everything else.

It would seem to be an elementary requirement to include some adventure in an adventure book. Dinosaur Summer has some, mostly of the expected form of run-away-from-dinosaurs, but it comes too late, and repeats itself too often to be considered effective. Bear has done a good job in extrapolating a complete Plateau ecology, but doesn’t do much of interest with it. There’s some truly weird stuff about prophetic dreams and such, but by that time, the actual reading of the book had begun to take on nightmarish qualities. (“When will it end?”, etc…)

Special mention should be made, however, of the rather good interior illustrations by Tony DiTerlizzi, who does a lot to save the book from total collapse.

Still, it’s hard to see who would be interested in Dinosaur Summer. From the weak premise to the botched executions, this novel doesn’t sustain any interest. The dry, uninvolving style tries too hard to wring out some charm from its surrounding and obviously doesn’t succeed at the task.

There is no doubt that Greg Bear can do much, much better than this. In the meantime, Dinosaur Summer will have to be classified as one of his weakest novels. Readers looking for a dash of adventure are advised to track down a copy of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original The Lost World.

/ [Slant], Greg Bear

Tor, 1997, 349 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-85517-6

Greg Bear is a very uneven writer. At his best, he’s able to produce stories like Blood Music, The Forge of God, Eon and the exceptional Moving Mars. As his worst, he gets taken with disillusions of literary grandeur and turns out stuff like most of Eternity, Strength of Stones and the incredibly boring Queen of Angels, all of whom manage to fumble clever premises by molasses-like plotting, cypher-characters and obscure prose. With / [Slant], Bear has added another miss to his collection.

Well, I’d better qualify this statement. Queen of Angels did not amaze me, despite the fact that some critics hailed it as one of the best SF novels ever. Cool ideas, interesting stuff, but it was still mind-numbingly boring. Slant is the sequel to Queen of Angels.

(A word or two about the title: somewhere buried into the copyright page, we find the following doozy: “The title consists solely of the slant sign.”)

Slant picks up a four years after the events of Queen of Angels. Despite the quadruple whammies of Self-Sentient Machine Intelligence, the Binary Millenium, explorations of the Country of the Mind and possibly intelligent extra-terrestrial life, the world of 2052 hasn’t changed very much from the previous volume. Most of the prequel’s protagonists are a step down from where they were previously. Policewoman Mary Choy has moved to Seattle. Psychologist Martin Burke has a private practice and doesn’t meddle with the Country of the Mind anymore: nobody does.

Meanwhile, a man named Jack Giffey is mounting a raid on a modern-day pyramid. A porn star/occasional prostitute has a disturbing encounter with a paying customer. A middle-aged man has seemingly lost his wife’s affection. Other stuff happens.

For a good hundred-fifty pages, nothing is brought together. Then, we get ominous hints of something like an impending collapse of the collective unconscious. (Unfortunately, nothing like that happens..)

By the time all characters, events and subplots come to an end inside the said modern-day pyramid, we’re ingested a bit of philosophy, met a few characters and seen a future that’s quite plausible.

It still doesn’t mean that it wasn’t boring.

To be fair, there are a few good quotes and a few equally good ideas here and there in /. There is an unusual emphasis on the theme of male/female relations (there goes / again), treated quite maturely. The characters are effectively (re-)introduced and we get the idea that we could have had a fairly good story with them. The first fifty pages are even quite good, mostly because at this point all possibilities are still open. Unfortunately, Bear settles for a pedestrian walk through the future and we, the readers, suffer through it all.

Slant doesn’t even have the memorable bits from the first volume, so it’s very probable that it’ll disappear from the SF conscience in very short time. A pretty weak cover by Jim Burns also doesn’t help. The interior design is quirky, perhaps a bit too much.

Upon reading books like /, there is always the doubt that the author may be too smart for us, that we’re just too dull, too immature to “get” what he’s talking about. It is probably the case with both of those books, but the ultimate recommendation stands: If you’re in the market for a readable, fast and fun read, steer clear of /.