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Fountain Society by Wes Craven
(Simon & Schuster, $25, 350 pages, hardback; first published 1999.)

Despite the pseudo-holographic jacket -- it's always a warning when vast extra sums cover scanhave been spent on the covers of "celebrity" novels -- the notion of a first novel by movie director Wes Craven holds a certain appeal to the curiosity.

As always with "celebrity" novels, the first question in the reader's mind is: "Who actually wrote this?" Well, there are just enough examples of writing amateurishness -- nothing too offensive in this regard (you'll find more in a David Baldacci thriller) -- to persuade one that, unusually in such cases, Craven did indeed write this book himself.

The next question is: "OK, so he wrote it himself. What sort of fist will a movie director make of writing a novel?" This is an especially germane question in the instance of Craven, who over the years has produced a string of the most imaginative horror movies around. You might not like a movie such as Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) but it -- as well as, most especially, the last in that series, Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994) -- is packed with extremely interesting and imaginative fantastications, so that the obligatory gore and mayhem are reduced to little more than irritating distractions.

That fertile imagination, alas, is not particularly evident in Fountain Society.

The plot is yet another rehash of fellow movie-director Curt Siodmak's Donovan's Brain (1943). Peter is a weapons scientist and Beatrice, his wife, is a neurobiologist; both are engaged in hush-hush work for the US Government. Beatrice is one of the team headed by evil genius Freddy (oh yes?) questing for the secret of immortality. Years ago, Freddy experimented with human cloning, inserting the DNA of his volunteer colleagues into the ova of women who came to him for fertility treatments. Peter and Beatrice were among those volunteers.

Peter is dying of cancer. Freddy, in league with stereotyped brute-headed fascist military officer Henderson, sends agents halfway round the globe to snatch Peter's clone, professional shit Hans. Peter's brain is loaded into Hans's body, and the operation seems to be a complete success.

However, Hans had a mistress, gorgeous model Elizabeth. She begins to be plagued by quasi-memories of Vieques, the Caribbean island/naval base where all this hush-hush stuff has been going on; a pseudonymous e-mail lures her there. Peter, meanwhile, has been having wet dreams about a woman he has no conscious memory of ever having known. Elizabeth and Peter/Hans meet on a deserted Vieques beach and, predictably, make the earth move a few times. Elizabeth is baffled as to how formerly selfish lover Hans has become an exquisitely considerate master of the sensual arts (I do wish more gorgeous young models would realize this about us old crumblies, but there you go).

What has happened, of course, is that the two bodies involved -- Elizabeth's and Hans's -- are experiencing our old pal cellular memory. It's spoiling no surprises to tell you that Elizabeth proves to be Beatrice's clone: no wonder she and Hans were mysteriously attracted to each other on first sight, as if they'd known each other forever ...! And it's not really a surprise that evil Freddy and murderous Henderson will do anything, murder included, to stop our trio from revealing all to the world. But they do not reckon with the fact that the cellular memory inherent in Hans's body means Peter can function as an expert pilot, a boxer with lightning-fast reflexes, and all that stuff.

As a chase thriller, Fountain Society is quite fun; it's certainly a far more enjoyable read than Siodmak's original(s) -- we must not forget his own rehash Hauser's Memory (1968). As an sf or fantasy novel it has, obviously, nothing new to add; and it's certainly, perhaps unexpectedly, not a horror novel. There are some oddities of science:

[] Peter had proved that atoms were not merely protons and electrons whirling around a nucleus...

[] With the body temperatures of each men [sic] at 23 degrees Centigrade, 7 degrees below normal...

(To save US readers time with their pocket calculators, 23 deg C = 73.4 deg F, 7 C deg = 12.6 F deg, so "normal" body temperature would work out at 86 deg F. Eh?)

[] We're two billion years of evolution, you sap! It's the Entropic Principle, Peter -- the laws of nature exist because our brains can imagine them.

And then there are oddities of expression, such as the afternoon sunshine making everything "gilded with gold".

All in all, while there are plenty of far worse novels not just published but attaining the bestseller lists, your best idea to satisfy your curiosity about this one is by means of a trip to the library rather than, your hard-earned $25 in hand, a trip to the bookstore.

Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 7 August 2002