Being a rather restless person, I often enjoy books whose plots are unconventional or whose stories center around something fantastic. This interest cuts across genres and subjects. I like to use literature and reading as a way to explore ideas not just as a way to kill time. It’s not that I don’t enjoy more conventional story lines or novels, but unconventional or fantastical ones just seem to peak my interest.
P.J. Fischer’s debut novel, Julia and the Dream Maker, was one such work. Here is the blurb that caught my attention:
Three graduate studentsâ€™ lives and ambitions collide in this near-future drama where experiments in genetics and computer intelligence converge, leading to courtroom confrontations and to an evolutionary leap that may redefine humanity.
Sounds exciting right? Seems like a highly relevant and intriguing plot given our own moral and ethical dilemmas and problems in an age of ever increasing technology. But despite some quality character development and an interesting premise, Julia and the Dream Maker never quite takes off; it reads like an overly long introduction to a series. To be fair it is the first in a series (the next installment is expected in 2005), but a novel – even the first in a series – should stand on its own. Science fiction fans, and readers with a science background in particular, may have an easier time wading through the exposition, but I mostly found it slow going. Now that he has set out the background, and has had the experience of writing the first book, perhaps Fischer can pick up the pace in the next few books.
The basic plot was succinctly captured in the blurb quoted above. Steven, Eli, and Bennie are science grad students living together in an old farm house to save money. Steven is a moody genius with thoughts of changing the nature of science. Eli is a beautiful and intelligent post-doc scientist trying to get her boyfriend Steven to think about the practical aspects of the future, like defending his dissertation and committing to their relationship. Bennie is just trying to get his degree and make a few bucks selling computer toys on the side. When funds get dangerously low, they decide to make some money with a quick side project. Given their skills and Bennie’s focus they decide to create a computer animated toy similar, but more sophisticated than, Bennie’s previous creations. But this time Steven will take the lead. Steven’s restless and ambitious mind, however, soon pushes the envelope on the project beyond what anyone imagined.
The story opens with Steven on trial for genetic manipulation (in the “not too distant future” setting of the story there are laws against things like this) so the reader knows that somewhere along the line things went awry. In jail Steven recalls the events leading up to his arrest. Fischer does a decent job of developing the characters. We see how Steven developed as the only child of a busy and talented engineer and a creative and nurturing mother. After his mother passes away Steven increasingly turns inward toward science and his own ideas. He is moody and has a tendency to lose track of the outside world.
Eli is the tough yet practical one. She hasn’t come from a world of privilege like Steven, but has had to fight her way to the top of her field. She is looking for more than science in her life, however, and so she is willing to risk her own career to be with Steven. She is the one who is pushing for Steven to get his degree and move on; to live a “normal” life.
Bennie is the friendly but awkward computer geek. He is insecure around his uber intelligent friends but he is loyal to them nonetheless. He is proud of his work and defensive about its worth. He too is practical; he wants to make some money.
These characters, and the setting, are well rounded and recognizable for the most part. The problems lies in moving their story forward. We know from the beginning that something went wrong with their project, but Fischer takes forever to even get to the project. Chapter Six is entitled “Starting the Project” and it is over a hundred pages into the novel. The Julia of the title doesn’t even appear until there are only fifty pages left in the story. Fischer takes up a great deal of space with Steven’s ruminations on science and the role of creation and evolution in the development of the world. Perhaps if I was a biologist with an interest in computer modeling and genetics I would find these musings fascinating. Instead I found them distracting and dense. Steven’s dream of finding some explanation that is neither strictly mechanistic nor theologically orthodox, but somehow organic and adaptive, is never really developed beyond vague and confusing day dreaming. And just when the plot starts to get interesting again the book ends. Eli’s interaction with Julia, as the military closes in on Steven and his work, is left largely unexplained and the reader doesn’t know that much more than when he started.
Julia and the Dream Maker has the ingredients of an interesting series. The ideas being dealt have potential and the characters are well developed. The setting is nicely balanced; clearly in the future but still recognizable. But if the series is to work, Fisher must learn to quicken the pace when necessary and to sharpen the ideas beyond fuzzy notions of the “next step of evolution.” Few readers will have the patience to slog through pages of musings and banter without a bigger bang for their buck at the end. Fischer’s imagination is clearly not lacking, what he needs is editing and focus.