Pros: The science is interesting; at the end there are some tense scenes
Cons: Where do I begin?
Rating: 1.5 out of 5
NOTE: Contains spoilers.
In the South Pacific, a boat full of scientists is pursuing “research” for a reality TV show when they stumble across something genuinely interesting: an unexplored island with a unique ecosystem that developed independently from ours. There’s just one, very big difference: it’s far, far deadlier than anything we’ve ever seen before. It’s one gigantic cycle in which everything is both predator and prey, lives are short, and humanity doesn’t seem to stand a chance. Before long the government takes over, other countries want in, and there’s a very short window in which to decide: nuke the island, or not? Because if even one creature makes it back to the mainland—and someone will inevitably smuggle one out, if just to use as a weapon—we’re looking at ecological devastation on a global level.
That description really sounds like a fun ride, doesn’t it? I love biomedical thrillers, scientific monster thrillers, etc., and Warren Fahy’s Fragment looked ideal. Unfortunately, while it delivered on a few pieces of its promise, I only grew increasingly frustrated as I proceeded through the book. Bear with me, because enough things bothered me about this one that I’m likely to write a long review.
If Fahy had put a third of the effort into developing his characters that he put into developing his science, this would be a far better book. Most of the characters are completely, utterly one-dimensional. The rest are one-dimensional with a quirk or two tacked on to give an illusion of depth. The major protagonist, Nell Duckwood, is a complete and utter Mary Sue, and her male counterpart is, well, her male counterpart in that sense as well. Most characters (if not all) could quickly be summed up in a word or short phrase, and they practically have “GOOD” and “EVIL” stamped on their foreheads. In one case, a character kills a child for no better reason than to show us how morally repugnant he is. There’s no believable reason for the setup, or for why he doesn’t get reported, hunted down, and arrested. I kept expecting the bad guy scientist to twirl his mustache and swing a black cape about himself, he was so utterly and completely eeeeevil (I can sum him up in one fell swoop: “I’ll destroy the entire human race just for giggles!”).
Fahy just doesn’t think things through sometimes, either. I doubt biologists—an entire audience of scientists—are going to be “squirming in disgust” at a simple slide image of an earthworm. And I hit a point where if I saw a certain character “crash through” one more door, I was going to be awfully tempted to hunt down an image from old Kool-Aid commercials of the giant pitcher crashing through a wall and send it to the author. A hyperbolic image like that can maybe be used once under the right circumstances; you can’t get away with it over and over without sounding like a cartoon. It’s also hard to imagine a bunch of military and science folks all failing to realize that going out in a vehicle that has rubber tires, on an island where one of the most widely-spread life-forms can secrete heavy-duty acid, might just be a bad idea. (The characters were actually shocked when something went wrong with that plan—all except Nell, naturally, because she’s the Mary Sue.)
Going back to inconsistent characterization, there’s a military character in here that goes from hard-core macho to a malleable blithering idiot in remarkably short order, and who seems to have no problem handing his guns out like candy to scientists who don’t know how to use them.
This could fall under several headings, but the concept of cuddly-wuddly sweet benign “alien” life-forms that are oddly intelligent, speak in ways that are just so cute, and of course have no violent tendencies towards humans whatsoever is so ridiculously hackneyed. (Yes, this detail does sort of come near the end of the book, but believe me, the existence of these critters is telegraphed so far in advance that I don’t consider this giving anything away.) It hit a point where I wanted the bad-guy scientist to be right about these critters being dangerous just to end the pain.
There are a number of places where the author does things to further his plot that aren’t really believable. Characters behave abnormally (for their positions or for their described personalities) just to shove the story to its next plot point. While Fahy appears to have done plenty of research on his science (so much that a seriously large portion of this book is not just exposition, but in some cases actual lectures being given by characters), he seems to have neglected some of his other bits of research. For example, if you’re going to make a character a professor at a well-known flashy school in an attempt to say something about his intelligence and/or character, it might be a good idea to make sure that school actually has a professorship in that area. In this day and age of internet searches, that kind of mistake is just silly. Particularly since it isn’t the only one, and in a book that’s heavily based on research, any mistake calls the rest into question in the reader’s mind.
I live not too far from DC, and let’s face it, it’s hard to live in this area without learning at least a few things about the government. First of all, the idea of a government agent chasing a scientist down on his bike (rather than, say, waiting for him at his office or outside his front door, or I don’t know, maybe calling him?) in order to issue a polite summons from the President is so ludicrous I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
There’s also an advisor-type character who shows up pretty much just to fail to listen to anyone and get himself into deep trouble. I hate to break this to the author, but at the particular level of government this guy was presented as being, his whole job consists of listening to and acting on the advice of others. The idea of him jumping out into the field himself, particularly such a dangerous field, after ignoring a ton of advice, is almost as ludicrous as that bicycle agent.
This is an outdated monolithic view of government rarely seen outside of the 80’s and James Cameron films. Books and film have moved on; most people at this point realize that individuals within the government are still just that—individuals.
Up until the end of the book, there’s almost no tension—and for a book that’s advertised as a fast-paced action & adventure novel, that’s a killer. The action-based scenes are interspersed very sparsely between the slow stuff, and when they do happen, most of them are over in seconds (literary premature ejaculation?). In one case the author actually interrupts an action scene to give us three paragraphs of loving description regarding the interactions between mongooses and cobras. Talk about a pace-killer.
I’ll stop there. Anything else would be overkill; you get the idea. One-dimensional characters; vast swaths of exposition; characters that make unbelievable decisions; an absolutely ridiculous view of government employees… the only parts that I enjoyed were the imaginative variety of life-forms on the island, and some of the action scenes toward the end.
Normally, I don’t reply to reviews. But this time, I wanted to point a few things out to you, as you laid a 1-star review on my book for the start of the Labor Day Weekend, a particularly nasty thing to do to a writer who is simply trying to entertain while being informative in a speculative thriller. Not all books are character studies. I would not fault REMEMBRANCES OF THINGS PAST for not including more scientific exposition on the origin of life or more white-knuckled action scenes. For some reason, this seems to be one of the approaches to science thrillers — faulting them for what they are clearly not attempting to be. (Sigh.) I’m sorry you did not enjoy Fragment to the extent that you felt it necessary to excoriate it. It hurts me, but I suppose you felt equally hurt, though that was certainly not my intention. However, if you focus on what the book is (and I have friends in the intelligence services of the United States government who differ with your opinion on those minor but well-researched issues, as well, but that is another issue entirely) I hope that some day you might be able to find something of value in what I WAS trying to deliver in FRAGMENT. Perhaps something of more value than a 1-star review of a novel laid on an author’s doorstep at the start of the Labor Day weekend. (And, by the way, you ARE giving a HUGE plot-twist way in your gratuitous review.) Happy Labor Day. Warren Fahy
I’m sorry you think I was being mean to you; you certainly aren’t required to read the reviews of your work, and no one would think less of you if you didn’t. I don’t expect thrillers to be character studies, and can (and have) forgiven weak characters in thrillers before. (It’s worth noting that it’s highly unusual for me to give a 1-star review—I’ve written hundreds of reviews with only a bare handful of such, so I certainly don’t go out of my way to be “nasty”. Hell, since I don’t have a long weekend this weekend, I’d entirely forgotten it was a holiday weekend, and I’m not really sure what that has to do with anything anyway.) However, there’s a limit—I need to at least be able to invest myself in a character minimally in order to care what happens to them or feel tension when they’re threatened.
I’m sorry you felt that was a giveaway of a huge plot twist. Unfortunately, since Binswanger is such a “Mary Sue” character, there was simply no chance that he could be wrong about benign lifeforms, intelligent lifeforms, etc. And since the evil scientist was so thoroughly evil, there was no chance he could be right at all. That’s precisely why characterization matters on at least a minimal level—because without it, character actions and whether a character will prove to be right or wrong hold no surprises.
I’ll add another note that will hopefully help when you get harsh reviews: whether good or bad, a review acts as publicity for you. As long as the reviewer details what they liked and didn’t like, it’s entirely possible for someone to read a negative review and decide, “hey, I think I’d actually like that.” I’ve had people tell me just that, and I think that’s great—if someone reads my review and it makes them think they’d like your book, I’m just as happy with that result as any other. If anything, a strong negative review often makes people curious. The only thing that *doesn’t* make people curious or interested is a lack of reviews. Believe me, when it comes to sales figures, that’s a lot worse than bad reviews.