by Robert J. Sawyer



352pp/$23.95/May 1997


Reviewed by Steven H Silver

In my review of Robert Sawyer's novel Starplex, I commented that novel was weakest when it came to the question of characterization. In Sawyer's next novel, Frameshift, he proves that he can do characterization as well as the alien creation he did in that book. Frameshift is not the first novel in which Sawyer has done a good job of characterization. The characters in The Terminal Experiment and most of his other earlier novels also come across as real and well-rounded.

The main characters in Frameshift are Pierre Tardival, a French Canadian postdoctorate working in Berkeley who may have Huntington's Disease and Molly Bond, a psychologist "gifted" with the ability to read the minds of people in close proximity to her. The novel opens with a seemingly random attack on Pierre, although Molly's ESP tells her it was an ordered hit.

Sawyer then flashes back, filling in apparently disparate stories of life at Treblinka Death Camp, a survivor's son, Avi Meyer, who works bringing Nazis to justice and the lives of Molly and Pierre. While we are shown Molly and Pierre's histories and how they began to build a life together, Avi is shown discovering how the highpoint of his career, the trial of John Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible, turns out to be a low point as the Israeli court overturns his conviction.

Halfway through the novel, Sawyer finally reaches the point where Pierre is attacked and many of the story lines have begun to come together. Eventually, Avi Meyer interviews Pierre about his attack, although his purpose and interest in the case are not entirely clear, although Pierre's attacker is known to be a neo-Nazi.

Of course, the novel eventually links Pierre Tardival with Avi Meyer's search of Ivan Marchenko, the guard from Treblinka. Whether or not Pierre's suspicions are accurate, and whether Avi can prove their accuracy to an Israeli court if they are, becomes a focal point of the novel. However, the novel is not merely a Nazi-hunter thriller. Pierre and Molly's lives together are just as important.

Molly, scarred by gonorrhea several years earlier, is incapable of normal fertilization. When she informs Pierre that she would like to have a child, using in vitro techniques, he refuses to donate the sperm because of his fear of passing along Huntington's Disease. Their attempts to find a way around this problem form a significant subplot to the novel.

A heavier novel than Sawyer has written before, Frameshift is on a level with The Terminal Experiment, even surpassing that Nebula winner in complexity. Frameshift proves that Sawyer's writing and ambition continue to grow and keep pace with each other. Judging from the title of his next novel, Illegal Alien, it appears Sawyer may be branching out into humorous SF. It will be interesting to see if he can pull it off.

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