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on May 09, 2011 :
The Karma Booth: execute the murderer in one booth, bring their victim back to life in the other. Seems like the perfect miracle machine, right?
Only the victims don't return exactly the same, the Booth isn't as predictable as expected, and Iran's got one. On top of the ethical dilemmas, of course.
The Karma Booth is a Michael Crichton style techno-thriller with healthy dose of body horror. It's set in the near future with the focus on the new resurrection technology, as the globe-trotting protagonists try to stop different factions from using the Booth for their own ends.
While there's a lot of SF with themes about reincarnation and planes of existence (Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld comes to mind), this work provides a twist as it's placed in the context of 21st century world events and demographic trends. There's a lot of ideas to chew on and it never runs out of surprises. I also appreciate how the body horror is introduced subtly in the scenes, which made it effective and even more disturbing.
The the "international" part of international intrigue is well done. I haven't read as much military and spy thrillers because sometimes the neocolonialism of many American and British characters rub me the wrong way, but The Karma Booth isn't hampered by this at all. The narration moves smoothly on an international scale between Cale and the various victims and criminals, with enough detail to make each setting and point of view character feel authentic.
I like how the realistic the protagonists are, which is a refreshing change in this genre. Cale as a US (ex)diplomat has sensible skill set, as he is always at the disadvantage during physical altercations and often screws up. He is also worldly not just the elitist sense, but also in the balanced upgraded common sense sort of way, which I appreciate in any person-fictional or not.
The Karma Booth could be stronger in its pacing and characters. It doesn't become a serious page-turner until at the halfway point. Pearce takes an exposition-heavy approach to world-building; it's vivid and done well for each scene, but somewhat holds back the overall momentum. I also find the protagonists distant and uninteresting-they sometimes seem to exist just to put the puzzle pieces together for the reader's convenience. But none of that kept me from turning the page anyway. The world going to crap, the body horror, and the metaphysical dread were more than enough to keep me reading the book through the night.
I recommend this book. If the premise sounds interesting to you, read the sample and don't hesitate to buy if it pulls you in. Any drawbacks it has are minor to the overall package of a stimulating Science Fiction/Horror thriller read. I know that I'll be re-reading a number of my favourite scenes, simply because they are awesome and creepy as hell.
Note: a free review copy was provided by the author.
(reviewed the day of purchase)
on April 01, 2011 :
This is a big book with a compelling, unusual idea - what if you could swap the life of a murderer for their victim? Shove the killer into one Karma Booth, and out of the other comes the dead person, restored to health and life. Easy decision, right? As governments around the world soon discover, as do the scientists trying to wrangle this strange technology gifted to them by a reclusive billionaire, the reality is neither easy nor pretty.
Pearce, using the vehicle of a mild mannered ethics professor and former American diplomat turned Government contract troubleshooter, Timothy Cale, who once saw what no one was ever supposed to witness, explores the ethical conundrums of the initial idea. He then twists it into a true horror story as the Karma Booths start to behave unpredictably, the victims (who come back disturbed and disturbing) start to be killed off by the one killer the Booths couldn't handle, and various individuals try to grab the booths for their own nefarious ends. Toss in Cale's previous experiences with a brutal set of otherworldly monkish judges, a sudden uptick in wild animals killing humans, and the re-appearance of a woman, Emily Derosier, who's been dead for over 80 years, and you've got a story which is gripping, confusing, and even mind-boggling.
There are so many ideas, images, and actions in this book, it's perhaps inevitable that something's got to give, and in this case, it's the characters. Timothy is the best fleshed out of the 'heroes', but at the end, despite his apparent importance to so many of the central players in this story, he remains something of a cypher, at least to me. We learn lots of facts about him, lots of reactions to him, but I still felt he slipped through my fingers. He didn't make the same impact on me as Brin Harper did in Buddha on the Road. He's certainly a likeable character, but there's a bit too much telling not showing about his characterisation.
The other characters are even hazier. Crystal Anyanike, the black London supercop, stunningly beautiful, clever, athletic - you get the drift - helps Timothy's investigations into the Booth's impact, and provides him with a surprisingly lightly sketched in sexual relationship and romance. Yet she never really becomes an individual in the book, and after her impressive attainments and attributes are ticked off, her role in the book could have just as easily have been carried out by Dennis Waterman's character in The Minder. Her special abilities make almost no difference. Pearce has created a superhero without anything that super to do.
The third member of the Scooby gang is a geneticist, Andrew Miller, whose role is to provide (largely bullshit) science babble, and to drool unsuccessfully over Crystal. He has the potential to provide humour, but never quite manages to.
If Crystal and Andrew hadn't existed, the book would have probably done just fine without them, because it's Timothy's interactions with the resurectees, with the mysterious 'monks' of long ago, and with Emily Derosier (who is probably the second most vividly described character in the book), which form the keys to solving the intriguing and dangerous puzzle of what the Booths are for, and what a certain psychopath is trying to use them to do. Which is more than enough to keep the reader glued to the pages.
While I'm banging on about the negatives (because I don't want to make it sound like this is a bad book), the two other things that bothered me was the bad science and the info-dumping. I could excuse the latter - there's a lot of ideas and information to convey, a lot of figuring out of what the hell is going on, and with Timothy deliberately portrayed as a layman when it comes to science, he's the one who has to ask the questions and get the long answers. I just felt there was a little bit too much of it in places. It was well enough handled most of the time. I felt that the book could have done with another couple of editing passes to tighten it up, cut out as much of the exposition as possible, and especially to remove some repeated descriptions of fists colliding with temples.
The science bothered me more than it will some readers, but as this is a genre full of geek readers, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect the science to be correct as much as possible. A reference to arsenic-based life forms (which are no such thing) as evidence of an importance premise was just sloppy†, and a crucial epiphany was made from DNA evidence when DNA just doesn't work that way. Without trying to spoil the story, if you have a DNA sequence from one organism in another organism of a completely different family, that doesn't mean the latter organism used to be the former, except in a strictly evolutionary sense. If you have enough DNA to uniquely identify one individual, found in another individual of a completely different species, that latter individual is probably going to be horribly deformed, or dead. DNA makes proteins, not souls.
This may not bother most people, and the plot works well enough even if you ignore this fiddle faddle. The fiddle faddle just annoyed me, that's all.
Now, in case you got the idea that this is a bad novel, put that right out of your heads. It's a fascinating book which works as excellent speculative fiction as well as horror. The pace is swift, the central idea powerful and challenging, the villains scary as hell, and Cale is a non-heroic hero who makes a nice change from supermen who are blessed with extraordinary abilities and intelligence. (The story is a bit of an anti-superhero treatise in some ways, since super powers don't make their recipients happier or safer.) Cale's smart, but not super smart, and brave without being athletic. What he is open minded and empathetic. Humane. Which is a characteristic I adore in protags.
Pearce has a wonderful way with description, especially in the horror scenes, and I guess my main beef with the expository dialogue is that they get in the way of more of this great writing. He creates genuinely creepy people and scenarios - genuinely disturbing - and in a way, the anodyne nature of the good guys is a necessary relief from the vileness.
This is a book I will reread, and think about. It poses some genuine ethical dilemmas and avoids providing pat answers. It explores a rich, wide field of religious, spiritual, scientific beliefs and ideas, asking the reader to think about what would it mean if this were true, if that concept was real. Books which are both entertaining and thought-provoking are rare enough, and for that reason (and because I enjoyed it a lot) I recommend it to you.
†The author, after reading this review, has already revised the story to excise this reference. So no more goofs on that score!
(reviewed within a week of purchase)