Thursday, August 06, 2009

Fiction: Fragment by Warren Fahy

Fragment, the new novel by Warren Fahy, arrived with not a little hype. A bidding war at the 2008 London Book Fair. Gushing comparisons to Jurassic Park and The Ruins. Jeez! I thought, Gotta read that one! And I'm about 80 per cent glad I did.

Fahy has created a rip-roaring, nature-gone-awry, cautionary tale. See, there’s this island in the middle of the Pacific, and no one’s been there for hundreds of years -- and when the last people were there, they didn't last long. They ended up in the ripped-to-pieces category. Before that, no one had ever been there. What that means is, this island's ecology has developed, since the beginning of time, along a different path than the rest of the planet. And what that means is, every square foot of the place is crawling with creatures -- animal, insect, and eye-popping, nightmare-inducing combinations -- that don't exist in our world, even though they exist on our planet.

Take disk ants, which are sort of like Frisbees on a terrifying diet of killer steroids. They roll around on their edges, then hurl themselves through the air to avoid predators or attack their prey, whom they latch onto with claws. Then they chow down. Oh, and their surface is coverered with bazillions of baby versions, little buggers which really know how to get under your skin—literally. Or take spigers, eight-legged tiger-like creatures whose ferocity makes hungry great white sharks look tame.

Fahy's catalog of the wild gone wild -- ingenious and entirely convincing -- goes on and on. Until about four fifths of the way through, which is when I came upon something that pulled more bile into my throat than all the killings and gross-out monsters combined: a character who's charming, funny, adorable -- and completely out of place in this book (and this world). What the hell, I thought, is this thing doing here? Does Fahy make it work? Yeah, sure. But that's just it: He makes it work, where the rest of the book just works on its own. The character -- in full and clichéd villain-turned-partner mode -- comes on the scene like a badly tuned piano in the middle of a piano-heavy symphony, and it damn near kills the whole thing. (My two cents for Hollywood: When you make this movie -- and you should -- find another way to energize the last section, or suffer the fate that Jar Jar Binks brought to the Star Wars prequel trilogy.)

The story? Oh, can't you guess? After millions and millions of years with virtually no human visitors, a group of hapless visitors happens upon the place (are there ever hap-ful visitors?) triggering a killing spree, global curiosity, and a master plan that puts many lives in harm's way. They also give the author a chance to do his soapbox dance about the danger of letting humans ruin our otherwise lovely planet, thank you very much. (I piled the lecturing into that same 20 per cent.) Is Fahy the new Crichton? He might be, one day. For now his characters are as thin as insect wings (so you sort of root for the creatures who've put them on the dinner menu), but he knows how to tell a story that makes you stay up way past your bedtime.

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