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The Age of the Conglomerates
Thomas Nevins
Ballantine Books, 295 pages

The Age of the Conglomerates
Thomas Nevins
Thomas Nevins has been involved in the book business for most of his life, and is currently employed as a sales representative for Random House. He lives with his family in Brooklyn, New York.

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A review by David Hebblethwaite

A few years ago, the writer Allen Ashley put forward the idea of "second page syndrome," a tendency he saw among science fiction and fantasy writers to begin stories in the thick of the action, then pull back after one scene to explain the background, thereby losing the narrative momentum they'd built up. We've all read stories like that, I'm sure; but I can't recall one that illustrates Ashley's point as clearly as Thomas Nevins' first novel, The Age of the Conglomerates -- except that its problems begin on the first page rather than the second, and it barely has any narrative momentum to dissipate.

The background to Nevins' story is that the US economy has collapsed, and political power seized by the Conglomerates, "a group of chief executive officers who were united in greed" and now control the President, the currency, and pretty much everything else. The baby boomers (dubbed "Coots") are seen as an undesirable nuisance and symbol of what went wrong, and are now promptly shipped off to "retirement communities" in the south-western USA when they reach their eighties. Parents also have the option of declaring their children a "problem," at which point they'll be taken away to become a "Dyscard" in the subways of New York or somewhere (not that the Conglomerates will admit openly that this happens).

This background is summarised in the book's prologue, which effectively reads like a "story so far" section. This kind of strategy is just about acceptable in a multi-volume series, but comes across as amateurish in a stand-alone novel. However, the point of such explanation is surely to get us up to speed quickly, so we can move on to the good stuff. It would make up for the prologue if the rest of the book told a gripping story; unfortunately, that doesn't happen -- in The Age of the Conglomerates, the exposition never stops.

We view Nevins' future through the lives of the Salter family, who between them span the three sectors of society. Christine is on the side of the Conglomerates (at least to begin with) as the New York Medical Center's director of genetic development. She's sort of, maybe, could be in love with one of her staff, the brilliant Gabriel Cruz. They have a date for New Year's Eve, but it's about to be spoiled, because Cruz is up to something, and the authorities want to know what. Meanwhile, Christine's grandparents, George and Patsy, are on their way to a "retirement community," but George hopes that those in charge don't discover that his wife has dementia. Then there is Christine's estranged sister Ximena, who prefers to be called X, and is a Dyscard -- shortly to be joined by Gabriel Cruz.

What might have been a good story is ruined because far too much of it is told as exposition. To give two examples: at the end of the first chapter, Christine is cornered by agents of the National Security Council and shown into an elevator. Instead of continuing from there, the next time we meet her, she's at home, just fine; then Nevins explains what had happened to her, which turns out not to be much anyway. What an anticlimax. Then there's the period after Gabriel has been sent to join the Dyscards and tries to gain their trust. Instead of depicting how this happens, Nevins makes an info-dump of it, skating over everything Cruz has to do to prove himself. Techniques like this sap the narrative of its tension and completely fail to engage the reader.

Alas, that's not all: the characters and setting are paper-thin. The Conglomerates are general-purpose all-powerful bad guys who are not even given names; presumably this is intended to paint them as faceless authority figures, but instead it just makes them ciphers. The chairman, for instance, has no characterization beyond wanting everything for himself and not caring whom he tramples on to get it (he'd be twirling his moustache, if he had one). The Conglomerates are impossible to believe in. And the good guys are not much more developed. The only characters with any personality are A and Dee, the leaders of the Dyscards, but only because their dialogue is sprightly -- we get no true sense of the people they are.

Nor do we get any true sense of what the world is like. For all the exposition, Nevins renders the background sketchily. There's no real feel of a society behind the events of the novel, let alone of a world beyond the US. And the Coots' holding-pens and the subways of the Dyscards don't feel at all like real places. Any point that The Age of the Conglomerates might have had to make about society is lost because this world and its inhabitants are so obviously artificial, and because the telling is so clumsily handled by Nevins. There's simply no reason to care about what happens.

Towards the end of the novel, there's a flurry of activity (or at least a flurry of short passages that cut between the different protagonists), as the Conglomerates launch an attack on the Dyscards, and the Dyscards seek to transport some genetically-damaged babies to safety. But even this fails to grip; it's more like something that is on the TV in the background whilst you're doing something else. The Age of the Conglomerates is a wasted opportunity of a book; it is highly dispiriting that it has been published in its present form.

Copyright © 2009 David Hebblethwaite

David lives somewhere in England, where he reads a lot of books and occasionally does other things. He has published over a hundred reviews in various venues; you can find links to them all, and more besides, at his blog, Follow the Thread.

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