Saturday, 22 November 2014

Review: The Silk Code

The Silk Code
The Silk Code by Paul Levinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This... well, it's not open to the accusation of being the same-old same-old. Amish bioengineers help protect a New York forensic scientist from a kind of retrovirus created by Neanderthals. Who are still around, and still fighting us. In the middle of the book, we go back to the 7th century, where a Tocharian druid, a Jew, a Byzantine Greek and a Moslem walk into a bar... sorry, I mean, circumnavigate Africa in search of the Singers, another name for the Neanderthals. Silk is all over the place, and the codes in DNA, music, language, and woven fabrics are freely convertible into one another (which is pretty obvious nonsense).

The science is... unlikely, and I found my suspension of disbelief tested beyond destruction a few times. I chose to regard it as more a technothriller than SF (the echo in the title of another well-known thriller involving dubious ancient mysteries helped with that). As a thriller, it kind of works. As a mystery, it very much doesn't; we're not given the clues to figure it out, and it has to be unwound in a big infodump at the end. There are scientific, or scientific-adjacent, infodumps throughout, usually short enough not to be too tedious.

The main character, the forensic scientist, unfortunately isn't very protagonistic. The author even hangs a lampshade on this early on, pointing out that he's just been reacting to events, but it doesn't improve all that much. Secondary characters drop dead around him with alarming frequency, he is apparently given a lot of latitude by his department to investigate the mystery, but his inquiries are not that effective, hence the need for the final infodump. He falls back on wild speculation as a substitute for any kind of scientific effectiveness (for a forensic scientist, he's very bad at finding evidence).

This isn't remotely a feminist book. A couple of the older female characters manage to be actual characters, but the younger ones are mainly objects of the male gaze. That includes Jenna, the MC's girlfriend, who, to me, never seemed to have any characteristics of her own; she was someone for him to have sex with, worry about and engage in expository dialog.

Nothing really hung together for me. Were the Neanderthals 30,000 years old, or was it just some technobabbled effect of the virus that made Neanderthal remains look that age? Apparently, both. Was the main Neanderthal character 300 or 30? What was the deal with the silk? Butterflies to carry messages, really?

Adding to the annoyance, I listened to this in the Podiobooks version. The narrator frequently fumbles words, and should not attempt an English accent; his attempt sounds like nothing on earth, but the closest comparison I can make is a Bostonian who's just lost a drunken brawl. The author shows off how well-connected he is in the SFF world by having well-known writers introduce each chapter.

That all makes it sound as if I hated it, and I didn't. I listened all the way through, and was entertained. It's just that the many issues eventually outweighed the entertainment factor, and apart from the chutzpah of even attempting something like this, there wasn't much to make it stand out.

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