Forgivable mediocrity of the paranormal (3/5)
Bob Shaw is an author who was introduced to me by Joachim Boaz. We both found Ground Zero Man (1971) predictable but also found the character admirable. Another common read of ours is One Million Tomorrows (1971), which had a pot-boiler plot with some tasty futurism. In addition to these two shared novels, I’ve also read Shaw’s Vertigo (1978) which had a very middling feel to it and finished the novel feeling unimpressed yet content. The last Shaw novel I read was his popular Orbitsville (1975). What exactly made it popular was beyond my reckoning because it only warranted 2-of-5 stars; it felt stale and lifeless. To finish my stack on Shaw, I’ve dusted off Fire Pattern—enigmatic cover (still can’t figure it out), good title, lame tag, and terrible synopsis… why did I even pick this book?
Rear cover synopsis:
“FLAMES OF DEATH, FIRES OF DOOM
It is the year 1996, and science reporter Rayner Jerome has been assigned to investigate a case of spontaneous human combustion. Setting out to prove the incident is some sort of giant hoax, Ray learns to his growing horror that spontaneous human combustion does indeed occur, and further that its cause it extraterrestrial in origin. And this knowledge catapults Rayner on a nightmare journey of discovery—a journey stretching from a quiet, backwater town on Earth to the heart of an alien stronghold. And as Rayner uncovers a frightening, centuries-in-the-making plot to invade Earth, he is plunged into the midst of a titanic struggle between two super-human factions, one bent on finding a peaceful means of coexisting with mankind, the other determined to enslave all of humanity.”
Mauve Starzynski speaks with her father, turns around to the kitchen to make coffee and returns to the living room to find a plume of sweet, bluish smoke, a pile of fine ash, and a severed hand with tapering char at the wrist. She had been away only a minute or two, so what could have reduced her father to nothingness? Could it have been an ember from his pipe, some medication for his abdominal pain, or the disused TV next to his shadowy corpse? All signs point to the ridiculous notion of spontaneous human combustion (SHC) and Rayner Jerome, the science savvy reporter for the Whiteford-Examiner, has been tasked to actually investigate the pseudo-science. Leery at first, Jerome becomes entrenched with the details where no correlation can be drawn, no coincidence can be found, no reason can be given.
The news in the town of Whiteford must be slow. The demanding, Amazonian editor-in-chief of the paper, Anne Kruger, gives Jerome the opportunity to run a full-page spread on the man’s SHC death and the likelihood of SHC as truth. Also in the news is manned mission to Mercury sent to investigate an artificial metallic object; this, and other science related news, is most interesting to Jerome, yet he peruses the literature of SHB, locations and hypotheses, times and people. His scientific reasoning indicates that something must correlate but the absence of any parallelism indicates to Jerome that this odd element of history may actually be true: “[T]here has to be an explanation. For every effect there has to be a cause” (31). Determined, Jerome set his thesis: “there had to be a logical explanation for SHC, no matter how deeply buried” (34).
Thanks to an eidetic memory, Jerome places a heart-shaped pillbox at one SHC with another at the Starzynski scene, but when he confronts Mauve, she retaliates against the accusation that the good doctor, who gave her father the pills, would ever be fingered, let alone involved, in the death of her father. Having the doctor’s name, Jerome goes to the lush manor where he lives but is disappointed when the doctor isn’t on the premises; instead, he spends a few minutes with the feeble-minded gardener, Sammy Birkett. The gardener, diagnosed with cancer but given a job by the seemingly righteous doctor, pulls out his own heart-shaped box, drops a mint into his mouth and offers one to Jerome—needless to say, Jerome is gobsmacked. Suddenly, the feeble gardener began to feel ill, then
opened his mouth and emitted a writhing, roaring tongue of blue flame ... bright fire spread radially from the gaping mouth to annihilate the face. He [Jerome] saw the torso swell, collapse and swell up again as it was consumed by a terrible heat which, miraculously, was slow to ignite the constraining clothes. He saw the nastic twitching of the limbs as they were consumed, turning the body into an obscenely dancing puppet …. his mind was aware that the reduction of Sammy Birkett to a crackling cinder was taking place as an incredible speed. A minute went by … perhaps two … then the visitation was over. (53-54)
Rushing home in fright, Jerome reevaluates his investigation. “[U]nless his conclusion about Pitman were totally false … he had made a major breakthrough in little more than a day. Either he was fantastically lucky, or the parameters of the problem were changing” (57). When he flees the town to think things over near his lake house, Jerome soon begins to understand just how much the parameters have changed. Eerily, the doctor is already there, who confronts him, buries thoughts in his mind with inhuman telepathy, threatens him with a shotgun, and makes him row a boat to the center of the lake… all the meanwhile, Doctor Pitman is spinning an exotic story involving a displaced alien race, transferences of the mind into human vehicles, and the real cause of SHC.
Another, more sinister, human doppelganger changes the situation abruptly, enveloping Jerome in own investigative target, which causes his mind to displace to a distant alien base. Not in his own body and struggling to keep his mind, Jerome must face the facts of his current existence while coming to terms with the aliens’ own sympathetic circumstances, which involve both Earth and mankind. His dilemma lays between choosing to act or not to act, how to act, who to act for, when to act and, most importantly, how to inform Earth of all the bizarre facts without sounding like a lunatic.
Honestly, I’m not sure how tolerant I am of paranormal or supernatural occurrences trying to be explained in science fiction. I’ve never read any SF with vampire though I know some exist. I accidently stumbled upon a werewolf story once; I read James Blish’s novelette “There Shall Be No Darkness” (1950) in his two-story collection entitled Get Out of My Sky (1980)… didn’t like it. I would have assumed that my toleration for fictional explanations for alien abduction would be low, à la Whitley Strieber, so I would have also assumed the same for spontaneous human combustion (SHC). Hmm… I wonder what other paranormal activities could get under my skin?
Actually, Shaw’s book starts off at a fantastic rate. The steady penetrating investigation of Jerome is as enticing as it is informative, be it true or fictional. The mysteries of SHC come fast and thick and when Jerome himself becomes witness to a case of SHC, the plot becomes electric. He takes information from history, applies the circumstances to other SHC, attempts to find similarities between a number of cases but ends up with nothing… absolutely nothing: men or women, alone or in a crowd, on land or at sea, alcoholic or teetotaler, smoker or non-smoker—nothing correlates. It’s enticing to see such a mystery, though supernatural, being tackled by a skilled hand. Pardon the cliché: However, he got more than he bargained for. He actually witnesses a case of SHC!
Yet, just ten pages after the descriptive and tragic SHC scene, another paranormal activity rears its ugly head—telepathy (dun dun dun!). I have a long history of loathing any mention of telepathy in SF; rarely is it ever believable or effective in a plot because it always seems like a lazy, ham-fisted inclusion. Shaw’s own inclusion of telepathy is useful (a rather tame adjective) but he grates my nerves by trying to explain the physical process of telepathy: [T]elepathy was partly a physical process, involving the teleportation of electrical charges into the receiver’s brain (144).
Telepathy is about the only thing that separates the humans from the alien Dorrinians; that and their alleged moral high ground where there praise themselves a “highly ethical people who revere life above all else” (79). They are bipedal and share all the sense of a human with the only exception being the lamely explained telepathy. They are so similar that an alien can easily pass off for a human. This scenario immediately puts me off, an personal miff of mine: of all the exotic alien ecologies, of all the species which exist, of all the planets they visit, they visit Earth with an alien race which resembles themselves—lame but accepted because the start of the novel was so enthralling. This likeliness in form to mankind is addressed later in the novel but it feels like a sad attempt to clarify the issue, like an afterthought.
So, two-thirds of the novel follows the fantastic beginning. It’s not all a ham-fisted jaunt through telepathy and similar alien physiology, some parts found be drawn back into Earth’s unknowing plight at the hand of the Dorrinians and Jerome’s place in saving or condemning the world. I feel that I can actually forgive the rest of the novel, like forgiving a man’s mediocre life because he was a child prodigy or being content with your ugly mutt because it was a really cute puppy. Get me?
With its highs and lows, Fire Pattern isn’t a keeper but it does provide some entertainment; if you want food for thought, Fire Pattern will not sate your appetite. Shaw, as I’ve said before, is a middling author but I haven’t damned him eternally, yet. If I come across anther Shaw novel as an acceptable price (below $1.00), then I might take another foray into Shaw’s mediocrity.