June 2004
© 2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Dead Lines by Greg Bear
Ballantine Books / Random House HCVR: ISBN 0345448375 PubDate: 06/01/04
Review by Bill Herriman (US) John Berlyne (UK)

256 pgs. List price $ 24.95
Buy this book and support SFRevu at Amazon US / Amazon UK

Is Dead Lines a story worthy of a Hugo winner or a call that doesn't quite connect? It all depends on your point of view. Here we present two: Bill Herriman reading the US version and John Berlyne (our man in the UK) giving us his the view from abroad. - ed

Review by Bill Herriman -

“Can someone live without a soul?”

Now, who could resist a question like that? Not award-winning author Greg Bear in Dead Lines, his new tome for Ballantine Books.

Dead Lines is going to shuffle the roster of world class horror writers such as King, Koontz and Straub. They’ll have to pull up a chair for Greg Bear, now, because this new venture into the world of what lies beyond is not only cutting edge horror/thriller/tech but also one of those creepy tales, which transforms, a simple object into something sinister and scary. I guarantee you’ll never look at your cell phone again without thinking of things more familiar to nightmares than to telecommunications. As a cautionary note, if your cell phone is made by a company named TRANS, just leave it under twelve feet of cement and walk away, friend, just walk away.

Greg Bear, respected and accomplished author of science fiction pushes the envelope, so to speak, and deftly combines technology and horror, with a dose of mystery and suspense, to create a story that makes you want to check that the doors and windows are locked and your cell phone is turned off.

Peter Russell is a man sliding inexorably downhill. His wife has divorced him, one of his daughters has been murdered by a serial sickie, his film director career is going nowhere, and the only thing that puts bread on the table and gas in the tank, is running errands for a wealthy recluse. It is while performing one of these seemingly innocuous errands that Peter encounter a mysterious woman, named Sandaji, who seems to be some sort of psychic; and fellow named Weinstein, CEO of a new technology company called TRANS.

TRANS has tapped into a brand new bandwidth for telecommunication that seems to offer crystal-clear fast as light phone communications from anywhere in the world. It also offers something else – something gray and wet and darting in the shadows. There is so much to this richly imagined tale but it is best left for the reader to dicover it.

Dead Lines is a horror performance worthy of a man who has won both Hugos and Nebulas. I have no doubt that Greg Bear will, someday, add a Stoker to his trophy shelf.

An Alternate View by John Berlyne --

Greg Bear has been around a good while, offering a plethora of quality hard SF and, of late, some fascinating science fiction thrillers such as the Nebula award winning Darwin’s Radio and its follow up, Darwin’s Children. In contrast to the main body of his work to date, his latest offering, Dead Lines, is something very different in tone.

Once a moderately celebrated director of skin flicks, Peter Russell’s career slipped into decline some time ago. Now he just about makes ends meet working as a personal assistant (the jacket blurb says he’s a Mr. Fixit) for a wealthy and eccentric millionaire who lives with his wife on an estate in the Hollywood hills famous for its scandalous past – think Fatty Arbuckle and you’ll be in the right area – but this is worse. Far worse!. The rich guy, Joseph Benoliel is something of recluse and Russell is approached by a company trying to get Benoliel to invest in a brand new telecommunications device.

The Trans is a kind of mobile telephone that operates on newly discovered bandwidth frequencies. The unit is still in development in the corporation’s headquarters which are, in rather macabre fashion, housed in a converted former high security prison. The main servers for the comms are contained in the old execution chambers.

Encouraged by the enticement of a finders fee, Russell secures the investment and is rewarded with a bunch of the Trans units to use and give away to his friends. This all goes well enough to begin with – after all, who wouldn’t want free calls to anywhere in the world and guaranteed crystal clear reception, but soon enough weird stuff begins to occur.

From the beginning it is clear that this is a story about death and about what lies beyond it – and something certainly does in Dead Lines. In tandem with all the above, we learn that Russell’s closest friend has unexpectedly died and our protagonist has to deal with the out and out shock of this as well as the mundane business of the funeral arrangements. Russell practically reeks of loss and his discomfort at dealing with this death is equally difficult for the reader. It transpires that his forlorn state stems from the loss of his own child, a daughter brutally murdered some years before by a killer never caught. This formative and terrible experience gives the reader something heartfelt to latch on to and knowing it, we can forgive Russell almost anything. His shock and distress then at encountering the ghost of his dead child comes as much of a shock to us as it must to him. Her appearance begins with nothing more than a nagging feeling of presence, but as the novel goes on, her manifestations develop until Russell begins to encounter her in full glorious Technicolor.

It is clear to us that the Trans units are interfering with the regions inhabited by the dead and Bear comes up with some suitable technobable to explain this phenomenon. Once all this plot stuff is in place, the rest is pretty simple. The ghost haunts her father and points him towards solving the mystery of her murder. Once the mystery is solved, both can rest a little easier - quid pro quo.

Though Dead Lines is a decent enough scary thriller, it is so only because Bear is a pretty damn good writer. In spite of this, I feel it doesn’t quite live up to its promise. Bear is good, but there are writers out there doing this kind of stuff far better than him. Check out Michael Marshall whose latest book The Lonely Dead I reviewed only last month (See Review) for starters. Dead Lines is very linear – in terms of the way it hangs totally on one idea which I didn’t entirely buy and also in the way the reader is never really out of the protagonist’s company. Peter Russell is not all that interesting when you take his pain away – perhaps giving him an “interesting” background was Bear’s effort to counter this two-dimensionality, but the net result is a little weak. Likewise the dénouement is all melodrama and effect and though I had not anticipated who the villain of the piece was, the pleasure of surprise was annulled by the resolution.

Dead Lines is a valiant, if formulaic, attempt by Bear to scare us, but it doesn’t quite come off.

© 2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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