, June 22, 2009
Before I write anything else, I would like to say that I loved this book. That in itself poses some unique problems for me as a reviewer. J. Michael Straczynski once wrote, through the mouthpiece of a character of course, that art is never improved by compliment. Reading that, it struck me as a revelation, and as a truth with a capital 'T'. Not only do I agree with that statement, but also feel there is the additional danger inherent in reviewing something we've enjoyed of simply illustrating a long list of virtues with no real eye towards constructive criticism. I have the additional problem of being a huge fan of science fiction. And while Fragment is more speculative science fiction than 'hard' sf, it still falls comfortably into that familiar niche for me. Taking all that into account though, Fragment, does a great job at being what it is. It has hallmarks of good science fiction of any kind, that being a certain logic to this new and different world it represents, an internally consistency to how the world works. Perhaps that is even more important in such an imaginative genre than in fiction set in a more real-world environment. On this point, as on so many others, Fragment doesn't fail to deliver.
Fragment deals with the discovery of an Hender's Island, more properly a lost fragment of an ancient super-continent, on which life has continued to evolve in a drastically different direction from the rest of the world for millions of years. Life very different from that with which we are familiar, and vastly more dangerous and aggressive. This discovery is made by an ill-fated crew filming a reality show about oceanographic scientific investigation. I'll admit I took perverse pleasure in what I took to be poking fun at the entire genre of reality shows, and many of the reality show stars' gruesome fates. With the obvious lethality of the indigenous life now apparent, Hender's Island is quickly barricaded by the U.S. Armed Forces, and a full scale scientific investigation is launched to determine what exactly to do about this new and alien ecosystem. There's some nifty bits for the hard sf fans out there about experimental NASA designed technology used in this investigation, though the life on the island ultimately proves to be far too dangerous to deal with. Just before a final solution is implemented to protect the rest of our planet's ecosystem, a startling discovery is made: intelligent life has managed to evolve and survive, with an albeit limited population, in this hazardous environment. The final parts of the novel deal with the scientists attempting to save this unique creatures dubbed Henders. The novel is put together in, well, fragments written in the third-person centering on different characters. We're given the time of day each fragment takes place, and they very in length from a few sentences to more traditional chapters. I feel like the format really helps drive the story forward and keep the reader engaged, especially early on when there are still a couple of B stories without obvious connections, other than ideological ones, to the A story.
From the beginning, Fragment reminded me of Michael Chrichton, a connection I'm not alone in making from the looks of other reviews I've read. Its present day setting and a scientific basis for this speculative sf makes it easily approachable and absorbing, even for those not normally fans of the genre. I can't speak for the veracity of the science presented in the book, as I don't have much of a background in biology, but what's important from a fiction standpoint is that it is presented in what appears to be a plausible manner.
The characterization in the book was good. There are a number of protagonists, all of them scientists, who were easy to identify with and root for. Though that may be attributable, at least in part, to my own nerdiness. While the book doesn't lack action, only one main character is what I would call action oriented. I feel that our own wonder at the new and unique is reflected in the scientists' curiosity. The Hender's themselves are funny, lovable and unique. They're innocence seeming innocence is refreshing, their intelligence astonishing and humanity a reminder of some of our own best qualities. They are also a statement of hope, that something amazing and valuable can be found amidst the most inhospitable of places, amongst the worst and most tragic violence. The only thing I found a bit lacking the novel was an antagonist. While it could be argued that the fatally hostile life of Hender's Island is itself an antagonist, I feel it lacks the directed, intelligent malevolence to be counted as such. That leaves us with Dr. Thatcher Redmond. There is an attempt to set up him up as a loathsome character before his actions at Hender's Island itself. And while it is generally good that a villain have internal justifications for his actions, as no one is a monster in their own eyes, I felt a lack of emotional investiture in his character. It wasn't until nearly the end of the story, when his actions endanger all life on the planet that began to truly revile him. He was, in many respects, the only character I found to be rather two-dimensional and unrealistic in book.
All-in-all though, I really enjoyed this book. It reads with the ease and speed of something I would normally consider 'light' reading. However, it is a good deal more thought provoking than that. Fragment leaves us with questions about the responsibilities and problems that come with humanity being the dominant life form on this planet. It in fact, it questions the very morality of that position, and what we are or are not willing to do in order to preserve our place at the top of the food chain. Just how far are we willing to go not only to protect ourselves, but how far should we go to protect unique species from one another and by what virtue are we granted the authority to make those sorts of decisions?
For those readers interested, there are a series of short films on YouTube based on this book. You can find them here.