(2004) Greg Bear, Harper Collins, £17.99, hrdbk, 293 pp, ISBN 0-007-12976-9
Greg Bear is best known for his hard SF, and he has produced some remarkable work including Blood Music, the novel based on his Hugo-winning novelette. We recently interviewed the man and asked about his interest in infection. He replied that actually he was more concerned with information transfer. Dead Lines at first seems to follow both themes. Infection because surreal happenings take place that seem to spread like a plague, and information transfer because the plot becomes involved with this fairly early on.
However that this is SF needs to be stated up front because Dead Lines is being marketed, and is written as, a horror or ghost story. Horror for the most part is presented very differently to SF (though there are a few exceptions - the obvious cinematic example would be Alien which straddles both camps). You also need to be aware that a number of reviews and the inside cover blurb gives away part of the rationale. I really hate it when this happens. I recall The Hunger which is actually a vampire story but the word 'vampire' never appears in it only on the back cover! OK, maybe the rationale is obvious, but then it would be with the benefit of hindsight, and even if it is one does not wish this confirmed for you in case there is a twist... Anyway, my advice is to avoid other reviews and the cover blurb.
Dead Lines' protagonist is the father of two daughters, one of whom was murdered some years ago. No surprises, not even the cover blurb, that she is part of the ghost element. Much of the action concerns an old (in US terms) mansion with a colourful history which lends to the atmosphere. The protagonist used to make mild, soft-core porn movies but these days is a gopher for a multimillionaire who lives in the afore mentioned mansion. Then the strange phenomena start to happen and spreads (seemingly infection like). They include ghostly manifestations and time disjoints, all enough to freak anyone out, especially if murder is added to the mix...
Greg Bear manages the plot with restrain and slowly builds matters up to an inevitable climax. That this is told as a ghost story and not SF is important. Dead Lines reads as a ghost story and if the same tale had been told as SF then we would have had quite a different book (probably with one of the other characters taking the lead) even if the plot was identical. Indeed his SF audience may not be so satisfied with this one as the science fiction is almost by-the-numbers as the story progresses: we SF readers are clear as to where this is going. Nonetheless the journey is reasonably interesting with some excellent imagery such as the haunting of a former prison-turned-office block. That the book is being marketed as a horror (we almost missed it had not Greg Bear tipped us off) is itself interesting and it will be intriguing to see if he attracts a new following. Clearly though, Greg was up for donning the horror mantle for he dedicates the book to several masters including: Richard Matheson, Fritz Leiber, Kingsley Amis, Stephen King, and Fantastic Films President Ramsey Campbell, all of whom are masters of horror writing (but I'm sure nearly all of you knew that). Bear has come up with an offering worthy of entry to this exclusive cadre but beware of the back cover blurb (and other reviews) unless you don't mind the game being given away.
Other works of Greg Bear's reviewed on this to date (Sept 2004) site include: Legacy, New Legends and Darwin's Children.
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