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The Silk Code
Paul Levinson
Tor Books, 320 pages

The Silk Code
Paul Levinson
Paul Levinson, Ph.D., is President of SFWA. He writes science fiction, SF/mysteries, and non-fiction. His stories have been nominated for Hugo, Nebula, and Sturgeon Awards. The Silk Code is his first novel.

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A review by Rich Horton

Paul Levinson has recently emerged as a popular writer of short SF, mainly for Analog. One of his most popular series of stories has featured New York Police Department forensic scientist Phil D'Amato. D'Amato's investigations have uncovered some curious murder methods, using some rather fun, if usually slightly off the wall, science fictional concepts. One of the best of this series of stories was "The Mendelian Lamp Case," in which a colleague of Phil's dies suspiciously after the two men visit an Amish farm where the other man was hoping to show Phil some clever Amish biological "technology." Phil's investigations uncovered a mysterious conspiracy by some of the Amish, opposed by others, to infect people with low level diseases. He also discovered some fascinating speculative uses of selective breeding to produce technology acceptable to the Amish, such as the title lamp, made using specially adapted fireflies. I liked this story, and I was eagerly anticipating Levinson's first novel, The Silk Code, especially when I learned it would be an expansion of "The Mendelian Lamp Case."

Unfortunately, the continuation of the enjoyable story to novel length is not very successful. Part of this, I think, is that the fun, off-the-wall, ideas that tickle the sense of wonder at short lengths, can snap the suspension of disbelief when asked to support a whole novel. Levinson has not solved the problem of structuring a novel very well, a common enough weakness in short story writers when they first attack the novel length. Part of it is that Levinson's prose is only serviceable: adequate, but not anything which adds to the pleasure of reading. And, finally, in this particular case I personally found the theme of the novel to be trite and annoying.

The novel opens with a reprise of "The Mendelian Lamp Case." Then, in the first unfortunate structural misstep, the book jumps back in time to 750 A.D., for a long and almost completely unnecessary digression about a young man of the Caucasian Tocharian race, which lived in China along the Silk Road, and his obsessive pursuit of information about the "Singers." We figure out quickly enough that the "Singers" are Neanderthals, and that a few have apparently survived to the 8th Century. But (sigh, that tired trope again!) they are a naturally wonderfully spiritual people, and the modern humans have killed them whenever they could. This section is also annoyingly written in colloquial contemporary English, which ruined any hope of conveying the atmosphere of the mysterious past to me.

After this section ends, we return to Phil D'Amato. He is drawn into the investigation of some mysterious corpses which begin to turn up. The corpses look Neanderthal, and carbon date to 30,000 years old. But other evidence indicates that the individuals died recently. Soon, an apparently real Neanderthal is encountered. As D'Amato and helpers in New York, Toronto, and London begin to unravel the mystery, a series of murder attempts are made. He slowly tracks down the threads (pun intended) of the solution: which involves silk weaving, the ancient Tocharians, Neanderthals, and lots of quite implausible speculation about viruses and "natural" genetic engineering, and silkworms, and some rather dodgy explanations of carbon dating. It's hard to say when speculative science crosses the line from fun and interesting to "too silly for words." I dare say that line is in a different place for most people, but this book crossed my personal line, at any rate. And finally, the eventual solution was quite a letdown. Most of it was in place for a long time, so it came as not enough of a surprise.

In addition, as I have said, the book's structure is weak. I have already mentioned the essentially useless second part of the book. The first part was fine as an independent story, but seems uneasily grafted onto the novel, serving mainly to introduce a few characters. The last two parts of the book are a reasonably consistent narration about the mystery of the Neanderthal corpses, but they too are marred by a few very jarring switches from Phil D'Amato's first person narrative to the third-person POV of various different characters. I think Levinson would have done better to find a way to give the reader the information from these scenes through D'Amato's first person POV.

All this said, the book is not without virtues. Levinson has a clever science-fictional imagination, and many of the ideas in the book, taken in isolation, are pretty neat. And despite the structural issues I had with the book, Levinson did keep me turning the pages. He's an engaging writer, and while I don't think this first novel works, the problems are of the fixable sort, and he seems to have the chops to write a fine SF novel eventually.

Copyright © 2000 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at

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