I read a couple of books that sounded like sci-fi on the flap, but turned out to be something else. A Hole in Texas by Herman Wouk sounded like an exciting tale of the Superconducting Supercollider and a sub-atomic space race with the Chinese, but it ended up being mainstream fiction. Is it just me, or are all mainstream novels about adultery at bottom?
It started out so well, too. Wouk does a great job of showing the business end of science–the funding, the rivalries, the power-plays, the government shutting down the SSC halfway through. It could have been sci-fi, but then the hunt for the Higgs boson decays into a mid-life crisis tour of Hollywood and Washington. Even though Our Hero is married to a gorgeous, intelligent woman, he has to attract the attentions of at least two other gorgeous, intelligent women. It’s a bit of overkill if you ask me; I’m assuming that mainstream readers identify with such handsome, successful adulterer-protagonists, but I didn’t.
But I knew Wouk was a mainstream writer. I was prepared to forgive the usual real-life filler. I was less willing to overlook the off-stage, hands-off solution of the scientific mystery. The resolution of the science plot just fell out of a satellite at the end of the book. There was no buildup, no pieces to put together, nothing. It was black-box science, as if the boson were just a prop for Our Hero to push around in between encounters with his women. It was believable, but it wasn’t science fiction.
Dead Lines by Greg Bear also failed to be sci-fi. A mysterious company comes out with a new kind of cell phone that transmits instantaneously, with no noise and no energy. It may sound like a sunny transhumanist tale, but the dark and scary tone lets you know right off that the second law of thermodynamics is not to be flaunted without dire spiritual consequences. The dead are restless, the businessman is soulless, and things go from bad to worse to Evil with a capital E.
It works fine as a horror story, but the science is never adequately explained. Some genius stuck a plug into the afterlife and all we see are effects, never the cause. I think Passage by Connie Willis is a far better mix of the supernatural and the scientific–it has all the spookiness, but with a believable explanation (at least before it jumps the shark). But if you like your horror with a veneer of sci-fi, give Dead Lines a try.