Greg Bear Dead Lines Reviewed by Rick Kleffel

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Dead Lines

Greg Bear

Ballantine Books / Random House

US Hardcover First Edition

ISBN 0-345-44837-5

Publication Date: 06-01-2004

256 Pages; $24.95

Date Reviewed: 07-27-04

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004



Horror, Science Fiction

No matter how much we may miss them, we're happy the dead can't give us a phone call, or send us a postcard from wherever they may be. "Having a wonderful time, wish you were here"? -- I don't think so. Some empty spaces, no matter how much they may hurt, need to stay empty. Think what might fill them if they didn't. Lovecraft and many a horror writer since have kept the shivers coming by creating the shadows, by exposing the emptiness. "We are the hollow men," TS Eliot says, and we instinctively shudder and step back from that description. The most effective horrors are not those we see or are shown, but those we are led to imagine. We all know what festers within the emptiness.

Peter Russell doesn't just know the emptiness, he lives it. Since the murder of Daniella, one of his twin daughters, he's been divorced and aimless. Now, the death of his best friend Phil leaves him even more hollow. He barely gets by, running errands for Joseph Benoliel, an old Hollywood producer who lives in hiding on his Malibu estate. He and Michelle, his young wife, are Peter's last lifelines to this world. It's at their estate that he meets Stanley Weinstein, the head salesman for a new type of cell phone called Trans. But Trans is much more than a cell phone, Weinstein says. He's unfortunately unaware of just how much more.

Greg Bear is an old hand in the world of science fiction horror, and he's written some of the landmark titles. 'Dead Lines', his latest novel, is a very effective return to this format, reminiscent of the great novels of the 1980's, one of which Bear himself wrote, 'Blood Music'. Jumping on the quantum bandwidth bandwagon, Bear's Maguffin, the Trans, operates by using the 'interconnectedness' of elementary particles. He waves briefly at Bell's theorem, but for a science fiction writer, he wisely keeps the science in the background. 'Dead Lines' is a mood novel of dread, despair and depression. Don't leave your anti-depressants at home if you decide to read this on vacation.

'Dead Lines' is written in plain but efficient prose and very short chapters, meant to keep the pages turning, and it works. Readers who might have been frustrated with the length and occasionally the hokey sentimentality of the recent works of our superstar horror novelists will find here a fresh and welcome breath of dank, stale air. This is the breath of the crypt, the smell of dark secrets unearthed after laying too long out of sight, and out of mind. It's short, sharp and to the point.

Likewise Bear's cast of characters. This is not the panoramic, rotating point-of-view style of horror. Bear keeps his sights on Peter, and the reader will be thankful. Peter isn't just a sad sack. He's as bitter as a cup of burnt coffee. He has a history as a legendary womanizing producer and director of soft-core porn films, but it's all in the sordid past now. Bear mixes just the right brew of self-loathing and lust for life to keep Peter vital and entertaining. Of course, Bear gives you the techno-geek behind Trans, and his ever-more-nervous sales force. There are not cackling mad scientists here. You've probably worked with people like those who man the helm at Trans; you probably didn't like them very much then, but they're much more entertaining as the effects of Trans play out into their unpleasant little lives. Bear mines everyone's angst effectively and efficiently, never dwelling, just showing us the shadows.

The shadows that Trans brings out do solidify enough to provide more than few scares and a nice sense of overwhelming dread. Bear brings out the New Age healer, the buried bodies and even suggests that there's an ecology of the afterlife and that we're not at the top of that food pyramid. And while Bear does show us the shadows cast by the pervasiveness of technology that nobody really understands and that has no deep history to show us the long-term effects of its use, he doesn't infuse the novel with needless details. He waves his hands and leaves trails of darkness. If this were primarily a science fiction novel instead of a horror novel, this would be a weakness. But in a world of hollow men, it's a strength.

One occasionally wishes that Bear provided more meat for this dark and muscular skeleton of a novel. It's not hard to imagine a novel with lots more technospeak, just a hint of the needles and gleaming surfaces that make Cronenburg's movies so disturbing. And if he could come up with one, a better explanation of how Trans works might be helpful as well. Instead, we get geek pride when Trans installs their nexus in the heart of a now-defunct prison's execution chamber. It's a wonderful touch that complements the theme of the novel nicely.

While one might wish for more, had it been provided, one might very well have wished for less. As it stands, 'Dead Lines' provides enough worries so that readers won't worry about what could have been. Or if you are worrying about what could have been, you'll be inspired to pick up the phone and make that call before it's too late. Before someone else calls you, with a message you'd rather not receive. Are you having a wonderful time? Are you having fun yet?