Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Often I go into novels with expectations. If they’re by an author I know and like, or if they came highly recommended from a trusted source, then I might have very high expectations. If they’re something I plucked from the library’s “New Books” shelf, then I’ll be less hesitant. Sometimes, however, I go into a book with few or no expectations. This is not because I am being open-minded; I am a huge literary snob and have the Umberto Eco reviews to prove it. No, when I go into a book without expectations, it’s because I’ve simply forgotten what expectations to have. Fragment is an example of this situation: I learned of the book from an io9 review, shelved it, then promptly forgot about it until I got it at the library last week.
It’s a good thing I had few expectations for this book, because Fragment does not aim high. Warren Fahy attempts to combine a science-fiction thriller with social commentary on the abundance of reality television and popular scientist sound clips—in other words, the shallow, consumer-driven nature of our culture. This is where I’m supposed to say that the combination doesn’t work but each element is fine when considered on its own—that would be a lie. Fragment, considered in whole or in its components, is just a big mess, and while it is probably totally possible to ignore that and enjoy the book, it was not something I was capable of doing.
Fragment is set mostly on Henders Island, named after the captain of a British naval vessel who spotted it while out looking for the HMS Bounty. He didn’t actually land there, which proved to be a good decision, since it turns out Henders is the last extant fragment of a supercontinent that has been isolated from the rest of Earth’s landmasses for millions of years. The bottom line? Evolution has diverged so drastically on Henders that life on that island is just not compatible with life on the rest of the planet. It’s seriously alien, seriously aggressive, and seriously dangerous.
So of course, a bunch of people poke it with a stick, and the sticks turn out to be animals that poke back. Lots of people die, stupid decisions get made, tactical nukes get broken out, and in the end the only people who really win are the good-hearted scientists and the reality television producers (isn’t that always the case?).
I’ll say this for Fahy: he knows how to take the outrageousness and turn it up to eleven. I guess this is what people expect in thrillers? I don’t know. I struggle a lot with evaluating thrillers and thriller-like stories, because on one hand I don’t want to turn into GENRE SNOB HULK and CRUSH THE THRILLERS for often forsaking depth in favour of a formulaic plot structure and rote characterization. On the other hand … well, what I just said. People reject science fiction and fantasy for being “too unrealistic”, but I feel that there is a great deal of science fiction and fantasy where, while the setting might be less realistic, the plot and the behaviour of the character is a lot more realistic and more engaging than most thrillers. But I’m biased—and Fragment does nothing to help in that respect.
Fragment is also science fiction, of course, and that part of the novel isn’t bad. It isn’t great either. If I had a nickel for every review that contains something to the effect of “I love the premise, but …”, then I would … well, I would have a lot of nickels, and I would probably spend most of them hiring small children to put them into those little paper rolls.
But I digress.
Fragment’s outrageous plot also comes with a matching set of outrageous characters. For instance, there is Thatcher Redmond, a completely spineless (not literally spineless, like the inhabitants of Henders Island) scientist who spends all his time thinking about gambling, how he can rape science for money, and the fact that he indirectly caused the death of his love-child. He is not a nice dude, and indeed, Fahy doesn’t seem to include any redeeming qualities about him. Not once does he even stop to consider if he is doing the wrong thing.
On the opposite end of the scale we have Nell and George. Suffice it to say, they hook up at the end of the book, in a rather awkward way that would be charming if it weren’t so bizarrely out of place. They meet for the first time ever on September 16, and the story ends on the morning of September 18, by which time they have progressed from that awkward, “Wait, your last name is Duckworth?” “What of it, Dr. Bingswanger?” phase to that equally awkward “Let’s kiss while the entire world is watching it as a live feed” phase. Everything about their relationship is trite and contrived, and it feels so inevitable yet forced that this alone is enough to make me dislike the book. Excising this wouldn’t necessarily save it, in my eyes, but at least I could point to it and say, “See? The protagonists don’t have hook up after enduring mortal peril! Fahy defied the genre!!” I can’t do that now.
Fragment does attempt to let slip the surly bonds of thrillerdom and touch the face of satire with its portrayal of reality television. The modern-day ship that stumbles across Henders Island and sets off this entire adventure is the Trident, playing host to a bunch of real-life scientists as part of a reality television show. With its ratings in trouble, a visit to an uncharted island seems like the perfect boost—all the more so when some of the scientists get killed by the indigenous wildlife. But then suddenly the military intervenes and the government shuts down your broadcast, and then what do you do? More re-runs of that awful Crystal Skull documentary, I suppose. (Can’t you at least play Mythbusters?)
Unfortunately, Fahy’s critique of reality television never seems to progress beyond the stage of a shallow portrayal of rabid producers and network executives. Cynthia, much like Thatcher Redmond or George and Nell, is herself a fairly two-dimensional character. The book is very explicit in establishing that she wants all her pet scientists to get involved on television and that she wants drama! and will do almost anything to get it. Aside from a few tentative mentions of pressures on Cynthia to perform despite her stellar track record, we never really get to see much more into her character—and she is essentially our only window on this reality television angle. I think this is a shame, because this is by far Fragment’s most original and intriguing feature. I suspect it is probably what made me want to read it in the first place, and for the most part it feels like a squandered opportunity.
I re-read that io9 review and see where the warning bells should have sounded in my head. This is what happens when books languish upon one’s to-read shelf for two years before one gets around to reading them! I don’t want to be too hard on Fragment, because I have read much worse books. It has a fairly coherent story and a well-defined conflict. The science-fictional part of the premise is stunning, and the reality TV angle is also a cool, albeit underdeveloped, addition. So there’s plenty to tolerate or even like about Fragment depending on where your preferences lie. However, it was frustrating for me to read a book like this, because I had the constant sense it was something that could have been so much more. See, I lied at the beginning of the review. I never go into a book tabula rasa, with no expectations. I always have the highest expectations for my literature, whatever it is. I can see how that might be perceived as a mistake or as additional evidence of my snobbery (but seriously, why would you need that when you already know I read Umberto Eco?). I prefer to think of it, however, as not forcing a book into a more condescending niche because it’s “just” an example of a certain genre. Every book has the potential to be something more—and some books, like Fragment, don’t quite meet that potential.