June 17, 2005

The Silk Code by Paul Levinson

It is a common observation that a detective story is a natural setting for a hard-sf story, because of the notional parallels with the scientific method. But it is rarely the case in science that the problem posed is much more interesting than the solution. The scientific and historical speculations dominate the earlier part of the book, but the book ends with a lacklustre detective story.

Paul Levinson starts with an interesting idea of moving away from technological sf towards hard-sf without much futuristic technology. This is risky business, because if the hard-sf details fail to be impressive then you are stuck with nothing, not even cool gadgets -- and this is what happens here. One is stuck between the absurdity of pinning all of the speculative science in this book on dubious things like cold fusion and the use of blowpipes which would be exciting perhaps in a Sherlock Holmes story.

The initial half of the book was so promising that the disappointing end was agonizing. Three dead bodies turn up, in New York, Canada and London, each of them have the physical characteristics of Neanderthals, are carbon dated to thirty thousand years but who have clearly died within the last 48 hours. Phil D' Amato, a forensic detective in the NYPD, has to figure out how this could occur. To make matters more stereotypical, investigators related to this event are being killed off mysteriously.

The first part of the book prefigures to a large extent the conclusion of the book in which genetic scientists are linked together throughout the millenia, from Lancaster County in Pennsylvania where the Amish live to the origin of homo sapiens sapiens. The speculative science, unfortunately, makes no effort to reconcile itself with all the evolutionary and fossil evidence of human origin that has been collected. It was as if the author was ignorant of these facts, or considered scientific fact unimportant to the speculations created.

The historical speculations are much more creative, elaborate and conform to the known facts in the area. The wonderful second part of the book opens in the Tarim Basin circa 750 A.D. in a settlement of Tocharians. This is the strongest part of the book. The fact that the real history of the `procurement' of Tocharian documents by Aurel Stein from Central Asia forms an important clue in the detective story was a nice touch. For more about the history behind the Tocharians, read "The Tarim Mummies" by J. P. Mallory and Victor Mair. For more about the exploits of Aurel Stein, read "Tournament of Shadows" by K. E. Meyer and S. B. Brysac.

Another intriguing idea, which was not fleshed out in the detail it deserved was the idea that the capacity for human-like language evolved only once: in the dance-like language of bees and moths. The Neanderthal species using various eugenic experiments managed to breed this capability into themselves, causing a new species to emerge which had the modern human capacity for language. This new species more adaptive than the Neanderthals, proceeded to eliminate their progenitors from the map.

The same kind of ideas and themes pursued in this book was also explored in "The Calcutta Chromosome" by Amitav Ghosh. That book was less obvious in construction and (to its detriment) more opaque as well.

Some interesting books mentioned in this novel were: "Partner of Nature" by Luther Burbank, and a book about the Silk Route called "To the Ends of the Earth" which was mentioned without authorship. I could not determine exactly which book this might be based on although I only did a quick library search.

%T The Silk Code
%A Paul Levinson
%I Tom Doherty Associates
%D 1999
%G ISBN: 0312868235 (hc)
%P 319
%K science-fiction

Review written: 2000/11/21

Posted by anoop at June 17, 2005 01:48 AM