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Magic Time by Marc Scott Zicree and Barbara Hambly
(Eos, $26.00, 373 pages, hardback; November 27 2001.)

Crackpot scientists at a covert Government research center have been working on cover scana device whose purpose is unclear. The team leader decides to press the button even though the proper testing hasn't been done. For some reason, all the electrical devices, including communications devices, stop working throughout the USA and possibly the whole world. Most people start transmogrifying into exaggerated archetypes based on their pre-existing personalities and, often, develop paranormal powers. Looters, rapists and murderers fill the streets. Planes plummet from the sky. Headed by Martha Stewart, mobs crazed through being deprived of watching Martha Stewart on tv rampage through the city streets, slaughtering everyone in sight with kitchen blenders...

OK, I admit it: that last sentence was a fib. But you get the general idea. This is a disaster novel in which, as in so many disaster novels, idiot technologists bring about global doom through their asinine recklessness. Where it differs, of course, is that the ramifications involve nothing so trivial as nuclear winter but the rapid alteration of human beings into strange monsters and superhumans possessed of seemingly magical abilities.

As in most disaster novels, we follow the adventures of various groups of plucky survivors whose fates eventually intertwine. The main group is that of which callow lawyer Cal Griffin is a part. In order to save his teenage ballet-dancing sister Tina, now transformed into an aethereal floating creature, from the clutches of his rapacious ex-boss Stern, now transformed into a dragon, he has to become in effect St George, complete with sword. He's aided by buddies like Colleen, a real tough broad with a heart of gold; Doc, an exiled medic from behind the Iron Curtain who's since arrival in the USA been flogging hot dogs; and Goldie, a Manhattan street crazy who's (nudge, nudge) not so goddam crazy after all. Tina picks up from the ether that there are two sources of the disturbances, one to the south and one to the west, so off go our disparate pals on a quest to Do Something About It.

More, perhaps, than any other form of genre literature, the disaster novel has a template; the broad outlines of that template can be easily enough deduced from the above. When reading a disaster novel, therefore, one doesn't expect to find many surprises in terms of the overall plot. What one looks for instead are strong involvement with the characters and gripping, fast-paced adventure narration -- as well as for any new variations on the template, although this latter is less important. Unfortunately, Magic Time -- at the end of which the tale is only half told, so that a sequel seems inevitable -- falls short on both counts.

The main problem is the characterization -- without much feeling of involvement with the protagonists, any adventures they might have seem distanced, as if they were players in a tv soap opera glanced at from time to time while one's doing something else. Who really cares if Cal saves Tina from a fate worse than death at the mercy of the dragon -- and it's pretty hard to imagine how a massive dragon is going to have its way with a small, aethereal humanoid anyway -- if in fact all three characters are merely jerkily moving puppets on someone else's stage? There's a sense, too, while reading Magic Time that the authors were likewise less than fully convinced by their own characters, rather as if they'd planned out a movie script with all the requisite stereotypes and plot events but left it to the actors to bring the characters to life, to make them people.

Another obstacle to involvement is the nature of the catastrophe. One can accept that the side-effects of the device might be pretty implausible, but there seems no rationale for the device ever having been invented in the first place. What was it intended to do? Was it some new bit of war technology? -- something of the order of the Goons' Bracerot, perhaps: "The enemy will never be able to resist us if they're all turned into troglodytes, Neddy." Or was it supposed to transform humanity into something superhuman, shoving us along through a passel of evolutionary leaps? Neither answer seems to be the correct one, yet there's no other on offer; with the result that we seem to be reading about a disaster that has no cause. This lack of any underpinning once again distances us from the characters: since there's no obvious reason for them to be in the situations they're in, the fact that those situations are mere artifices, mere whims of the storytellers, is constantly at the forefront of the mind, as is the realization that the novel as a whole has been written according to template.

Still, still, all could maybe be rescued if the writing itself were gripping. Sadly, it plods -- and it's not helped by disruptive misspellings all over the place: "ibuprophen", "Gurjieff", "leeching" (for "leaching"), "peddled" (for "pedalled/pedaled"), "nickle"...

There is one aspect of Magic Time, however, that is really exceptional: the cover illustration, done by Iain McCaig. This appears to be a piece of concept art for a tv series or tv movie related to the novel, and it's very striking indeed.

Pedestrian writing, cardboard characters, a plot without rationale, an adherence to template ... All of these comments might suggest that Magic Time is an out-and-out stinker. In fact, it's not quite that bad. Its real problem, for all the reasons cited, is that it's dull.

Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 5 January 2002