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Dead Lines

by Greg Bear

(Ballantine, $24.95, 246 pages, hardcover, June 2004.)

Review by Stuart Jaffe

Whenever a mainstream author takes that leap into writing genre fiction, we genre cover scanlovers can be (and often are) harsh. Many times the criticism is well earned, but we should remember that the pendulum swings back as well as forth. Enter Greg Bear.

Dead Lines is the noted science-fiction author's foray into the mainstream via a tale that mixes a near-future technology (a superior telecommunications device called Trans) with old-style horror (ghosts). As is to be expected in a tale such as this, things don't go so well for the characters (especially considering the telecom's main equipment facility is an old gas chamber surrounded by a crumbling prison). And, for Bear, the novel draws out his main strengths and weaknesses in glaring Technicolor.

Peter Russell is a shell of a man: a former soft-core film director, a former husband and father, a former good friend. Nowadays, he spends most of his time running strange errands for Joseph Benoliel, a wealthy eccentric. On the same day he learns that his best friend has died, he is approached to head up promotions for a new telecom venture of amazing capabilities. He is also sent by Benoliel to visit a psychic in order to ask one question -- can a person live without a soul? How these three events tie together, and how they explain the numerous ghostly sightings that pop up, is the thrust of the novel.

So, what are Bear's strengths and weaknesses that this tale reveals? On the Good side, we are treated to Bear's infinite imagination. He can create technologies, situations, and individual moments that the reader willingly believes. His prose is straightforward and solid, and he always delivers an amusing tale. Even his one moment of infodump played quite well.

However, on the Bad side is his tendency to draw very flat characters. Tied in with that is the great distance he places between the reader and the work. We are shown the details of what happens, but rarely do we get deeply involved in the characters' hearts. It creates a numbing quality to his stories that ultimately turns me off. In a horror tale, the failing can (ahem) be deadly.

After all, how scary can a scary moment be if we are not permitted to feel a character's pulse quicken, smell the sweat trickling down, see the hands shaking? Haunted houses and shadowy ghosts are frightening when presented from a close, intimate perspective. However, when we observe the events from afar, we are too safe in our own comfort to get riled about the potential dangers facing the characters.

Oddly, though, Dead Lines does present Bear's best main protagonist that I have encountered in his work to date. Peter Russell is a mixed-up man, suffering from loss and living in his past glory days while also regretting them. It is such a shame that we can't get into Russell's skin when the story starts flying because I know it would have been fantastic. As is, though, we are presented with a wonderful main character and an average story containing a few good twists and a few predictable ones.

There seems to be a battle of genres going on rather than a melding of them. Perhaps if Bear had cut out the whole science-fiction angle (substantially changing the story, I admit), he would have been able to concentrate solely on learning how to write a good horror tale. Instead, both genre elements lack a sense of completeness.

And that brings us back to the pendulum. Just as those writing science-fiction must play by certain rules, the same holds true in other genres. When an author tries a new genre, he must discover those rules. New genres require new skills, and Bear seems to understand what those skills are, although he has not quite acquired them yet. If he keeps at it, I think he will pull this off and find a new angle to his already noteworthy career. Unfortunately, Dead Lines is not the book that will do it for him.

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