Thursday, June 12, 2008

Vitals by Greg Bear

After finishing Vitals, I was quite confused. I have a habit of skimming through parts of books that I'm reading. Say a paragraph begins to provide details that I couldn't care less about, Bam!, there I am at the beginning of the next paragraph. If the next one or two seem to be more of the same, Zip!, I arrive at the next set of quotation marks. Occasionally, I wind up backtracking to figure out what important detail I've missed, but it usually doesn't affect my overall understanding of a story at all, and it helps me to get past the unimportant stuff quickly. So when I finished this novel and wondered what on earth had happened and why I was so confused, I wasn't sure whether it was just me and my sloppy reading style, or if everyone felt the same way about it. It was very validating, then, to find my dissatisfaction echoed by so many other reviewers over at I wasn't the only one confused!

Now, I don't want anyone to think this means I'm giving up on Mr. Bear. His novels have creative, fascinating plots. He shows large amounts of scientific knowledge, explored in ways I've never considered before. He is adept at adding an element of uncertainty and danger. But, for whatever reason, Vitals just wasn't what it could have been.

In the beginning, I was really excited by what I found: A mysterious phone call, a deep ocean dive to uncover some of the most primitive cells still in existence, and a sub pilot that starts exhibiting some really uncomfortable, bizarre behaviors. Right off the bat, my imagination was reeling with questions! And they kept piling up. So many strange things were happening, and I thought it would be a lot of fun eventually making sense out of things. Unfortunately, as you may well know, the more answers you have, the more questions you tend to uncover.

One of the devices which keeps the confusion up is a bacteria that causes people to become highly susceptible to brain tampering. Apparently, it causes people to remember things and experience things that aren't real, and a lot of times people, including the main character, don't know which bits are real and which ones are not. The bacteria is used liberally by the enemy (whoever that really turned out to be) to prevent our scientist, who goes by the name of Hal, from finding the key to unlocking immortality.

Eventually it gets to the point where you can't trust anybody, even the thoughts of the main character. Everyone is chasing all over searching for clues to what is really going on, while narrowly avoiding death numerous times. In this type of story, I'm always annoyed at the number of people that seem to know the truth but just haven't really explained it to the main character. And the same thing for the friends which aren't really his friends. You know they're there; it's more surprising to find a friend that really is loyal in the end. My question about these turncoats, though, is why they humor our hapless hero and guide him through so much when they should just cap him right in the beginning. Do they want some information from him? In this story, I can think of nothing he knows that would be useful at all. And they are always trying some roundabout way of killing him, that you have to wonder if they're trying at all. It reminds me of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery:

Dr. Evil: Scott, I want you to meet daddy's nemesis, Austin Powers.
Scott: What, are you feeding him? Why don't you just kill him?
Dr. Evil: No Scott, I have a better idea. I'm going to place him in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death.
Scott: Why don't you kill him now? I mean, come on, we can shoot 'im together. It'll be fun. Bang! Dr. Evil: One more word out of you and you are grounded, mister, and I am not joking!

Dr. Evil: Begin the unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism.
[Guard starts dipping mechanism]
Dr. Evil: Close the tank!
Scott Evil: Wait, aren't you even going to watch them? They could get away!
Dr. Evil: No no no, I'm going to leave them alone and not actually witness them dying, I'm just gonna assume it all went to plan. What?
Scott Evil: I have a gun, in my room, you give me five seconds, I'll get it, I'll come back down here, BOOM, I'll blow their brains out!
Dr. Evil: Scott, you just don't get it, do ya? You don't.

Anyway, I was sure the ending would be enlightening. There's a big showdown on a luxurious cruise ship, and I thought that at the end of that, answers would be forthcoming and the cognitive dissonance that built throughout the novel would finally dissolve. I'd know who and why, if not how. Instead, the enemy escapes, the attack is a muddled mess, and in the end our Hal is explaining his insights at the same time he's experiencing the symptoms of the mind-altering bacteria, making even the conclusions from the final two pages suspect. Aargh! Why weren't there 200 more pages so that it could all be tied together as a coherent whole? Why hadn't Hal been killed so much earlier? Who is Banning, and how does he tie in to anything? What about Lissa and Shun? Did I just read a novel, or have I been deceived as well? Did Rob really die?

So the final verdict is: don't read Vitals. It will not satisfy you. Unless you come across an annotated study version of the book, with all the hidden things revealed, it will be too frustrating. Or perhaps a doctoral thesis giving an in-depth analysis of the plot lines contained within Vitals. I've searched the Internet. I know the questions, but I'm afraid there will be no answers.


Jen said...

Were they at least ill-tempered sea bass? I was cracking up reading your review, because, just before you went into the Austin Powers dialogue, that exact scene came to mind. That's a great scene.

Amanda said...

I haven't seen that movie in forever!

Byron said...

It's borrowed humor, but I thought it would be fair to use it since it helped emphasize my point.