Simon Bisson (sbisson) wrote,
Simon Bisson

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A Sunday Lunchtime "Catch Up Review": The Consciousness Plague

SF has had a love-hate relationship with Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind for a long time now. There's something in its thesis of how humanity became a conscious, self-aware, animal that grabs the imagination, and flings the reader to one or other side of the argument. It's also a difficult argument to assess, as we have no way to even start to prove or disprove the thesis. One thing's for sure: Jaynes has inspired many, vastly different, SF novels, from authors including Neal Stephenson and Harry Turtledove.

Jaynes' theory lies at the heart of Paul Levinson's latest Phil D'Amato novel, The Consciousness Plague. Phil is that rara avis, the SF detective. Though, unlike Gil the ARM or Baley, he's not a technology buff - in fact, he's a specialist in forensic medicine for the New York police. It's not surprising that D'Amato's cases revolve around the extremes of biology.

The Consciousness Plague wraps two plot threads around each other, twisting and turnng out of the central theme: "What is memory?". A dead body in Central Park leads to questions of identification and relationships, while a new antibiotic used to combat the infections associated with influenza appears to cross the blood/brain barrier, causing random amnesia. D'Amato struggles to solve one case, while trying to warn of the dangers of the others - only to find that the two are tightly linked, and answers in one affect the progress of the other.

As the body count mounts, D'Amato is desperately trying to show that this isn't the first time that changes in medical techniques affected consciousness, while struggling to find out just who the murderer is. And did the early use of molds as medicine encourage the development of writing by affecting the near perfect memories of the ancients? It's a race against time to solve the crime and to prove the effects of the new drug on memory, before the influenza season swings round again.

Unfortunately this is a disappointing novel. While the earlier D'Amato shorts and the novel The Silk Code are engaging works, there's something missing here. Levinson uses the storty to attempt little Hitchcock homages, but loses track of the plot. Vital evidence arrives by authorial fiat in awkward coincidences, and the plague of memory loss is treated as a mere inconvenience. There's little here to teach us more about D'Amato, and little engagement with the central questions. All in all, The Consciousness Plague fails both as police procedural and as SF. It's a pity, because Levinson is capable of much more than this potboiler.
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