Thursday, May 23, 2013
Book Review: Fringe: The Zodiac Paradox
I’m a surprise fan of Fringe. I heard about it, but thought it sounded like a crappy X-Files riff; another of so many shoddy TV shows that recycle ideas with a couple of semi-novel ‘twists,’ last a season (or in truly dire situations, more than one season), and fade into justified obscurity (see every show featuring a vampire in the lead, with the possible exception of Dark Shadows). And this time, one of those goofy dudes from Dawson’s Creek was on the team and Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Still, I am not made of stone (though I do have a piece of coal where my heart should be), and eventually I listened to one of the many voices singing its praise and gave it a try. Glad I did. It is like X-Files. Except that instead of one in five episodes being pretty good (with the rest being forgettable or bloody awful), Fringe was fairly consistently good and thematically focused. And what’s more, the Dawson kid was good (?!). But the best character, the most fun to watch, the one I found myself paying attention to, empathizing with, and wanting to know more about, was the resident mad scientist, the drugged up nutter Walter Bishop.
Take my favorite character from an excellent show and put him into the hands of one of my favorite active writers, Christa Faust? Sounds like a good recipe. And so it is. A prequel story about Walter, William Bell, and Nina Sharp and a protracted battle with the Zodiac killer. Sign me up. But media tie-in novels are a tricky thing. I’m a long time Star Trek fan, and have read my fair share of Trek novels…a few of them were even good. I’ve read some Farscape books, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and others. More often than not, they’re not very good. By which I mean they’re garbage. The key problem is writing characters that sound and feel like the ones you’re used to from the show/film. Why was The Wounded Sky a good Trek novel? Because Kirk spoke and acted like Kirk, and McCoy spoke and acted like McCoy. Once a writer does that, I’m much more willing to sit through whatever story they might wish to tell, but if a writer can not do that…I’m out. All that is a long way of leading into the strength of this book. When Faust puts words into Walter’s mouth, I hear and see John Noble. When she puts words into Belly’s mouth, I hear and see Leonard Nimoy. After that, it’s all gravy.
The story deals with early stage explorations into the mind altering drugs and reality breaking research that is the backstory of Fringe. Bishop, Bell, and Sharp come together in the early 70s and lay conceptual groundwork for their lives, building the foundation of all that will lead to the events of the TV series. And this is the stuff I loved about the show. I’m really fascinated by all that post 60s, post hippie Utopian insanity. Like the Dharma Initiative on Lost or The Arboria Institute from Beyond the Black Rainbow. Or experimental hospitals in movies like Rabid and The Brood. People with nothing but the best of intentions, trying to craft a new, better world, but with dire and sometimes apocalyptic consequences. Some combination of drugs, the Cold War, profound social change, and wild tech growth created a weird time where almost anything seemed possible. A time when two science nerds tripping balls in a park might just open a rift to another world, or find a way to boost human evolution. I’ll admit, the Zodiac killer didn’t particularly interest me. This is largely due to my ambivalence toward serial killer history and fiction. It’s well handled, and I think the scenes written from his point of view are appropriately creepy and disquieting. But due to my own interests and prejudices, I kept wanting the scenes to end so I could get back to Walter, Nina, and Belly, or the student researchers, or even the psychedelic rock band trying to change the world with their music, man. I can’t imagine there are a lot of people like myself, who would love to read a novel about the founding of Massive Dynamics, and their early research work, without need of a monster or villain. I should probably just pop on a few more prog-rock albums, watch Videodrome, and be content.
If you’re a Fringe fan, absolutely check this book out. It’s nice supplementary material that builds the world a bit more and gives details on the early lives of some major players. If you’re a Christa Faust fan, you should enjoy her typical cracking action, natural dialog, and uncomfortable violence. It is a tie-in to a PG-13 type show, so the violence is more restrained than in Choke Hold or Money Shot. But it doesn’t feel false or too sanitized. If you’re like me, and a fan of both, this is a no-brainer. Read it.