Sandy Palmer, cub reporter for a scuzzy New York tabloid weekly, The Light, is on the subway when a maniac gunman opens up with a pair of automatics. Before the lunatic can kill too many, the guy who's been sitting opposite Sandy, and whom Sandy has hardly noticed, pulls out a weapon of his own and efficiently shoots the maniac dead. At the next station the vigilante hero leaps out and loses himself in the crowd. Sandy determines to track down the man he dubs The Savior (he succeeds), thereby become a star reporter for The Light (he succeeds) and get into the pants of Beth, the pretty student he was hitting on when the gunman opened fire (he vigorously and repeatedly succeeds).
The reason The Savior is desperate for anonymity is that he is in fact the enigmatic Repairman Jack, living somewhere beyond the fringes of the law and earning his living by "repairing" bad situations -- rather like a private detective but with more reliance on firepower to solve problems. Few know his identity except his pal Abe who, under cover of running a sports shop, is in fact a seller of sophisticated weaponry to Repairman Jack and, presumably, the criminal fraternity. (A nice little touch, for sf readers, is that Abe's overt establishment is called the Isher Sports Shop.)
And Jack is about to get a new client. The mystery woman on the telephone proves when they finally meet to be, by astonishing coincidence, his long-estranged sister Kate. Divorced, Kate has discovered why her marriage didn't work so well, and is now in a long-term lesbian relationship with Jeanette. But of late Jeanette has been behaving very strangely, and Kate traces this change of personality to when Jeanette was cured of a -- diagnosed as -- inoperable brain tumour by the radical new technique developed by a surgeon called Fielding. More and more frequently, Jeanette is slipping away for sessions with what seems rather like a coven, headed by the enigmatic Holdstock.
Jack discovers a side-effect of Fielding's technique is that the patients develop such a strong sense of telepathy between each other they are creating a group mind that is somewhat more than the sum of its parts. This group mind is desperate to add to its size by infecting further individuals with contaminated blood -- a mere pinprick can be enough. Kate and Jack are accordingly infected in this way, and much of the tension in this highly readable thriller is generated by the fact that both know that, unless they can do something about it, within a few days they will lose their identities to the group mind.
This reviewer has had difficulty with the various F. Paul Wilson novels he's read in the past because of Wilson's general tendency to default to the apocalyptic: if the threatened end of the universe cannot be brought into play, then at the very least the human species must be in danger of extinction. And so it is here. Jack and Kate know -- and if they didn't they'd get a clue from their own apocalyptic dreams -- that, if they don't succeed in stopping the rot pretty swiftly, the human species as we know it is doomed. In the case of Hosts, however, the melodramatic possible consequences of the success or otherwise of our heroes do not seem so intrusive: they seem a logical follow-on from the less ostentatious actions of the characters, and are kept at a reasonable distance from the main thrust.
Refreshingly, there is humour here, too, mainly brought about by a subplot involving a pair of bumbling hoodlums who have sworn to assassinate Jack in revenge for his having helped them hoist themselves with their own petard -- almost literally -- in a previous adventure.
This is by no means a major novel -- in no sense could it be thought of as having the ambition to extend its genre in any way, or even to make the reader think -- yet it certainly is a hugely enjoyable sf/fantasy/horror thriller, and very hard to put down. My only real cavil is that it doesn't allow the group mind properly to put forward its own case. An argument could be, but isn't, made that the loss of our individualities into, eventually, a single species-mind might have benefits as well as drawbacks -- in other words, if the group mind of the tale is genuinely philanthropic (albeit misguided), which it clearly believes itself to be despite its readiness to kill in order to advance its cause, then it should be permitted to state its rationale, even if we reject (as inevitably we would) its reasoning. Instead, it is assumed that any form of group mind is per se a complete evil, an anathema to all that is human, and that the reader will regard it with complete revulsion and accept the slaughter of the human members of the group mind as of no consequence -- or, rather, something to applaud. As, to be true, probably most readers indeed will. Yet there is something slightly unsatisfying about a novel that in effect says to us: the baddies are bad because they're bad. A more ambitious work might have offered us a fair presentation of the motivations of the foe.
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© John Grant 15 September 2001