Paul Levinson,
The Consciousness Plague
(Tor, 2002)

The Consciousness Plague is a quick, enjoyable read that includes some intriguing speculation on the physical properties of human memory. It's a clever amalgam of science fiction and police procedural, a marriage of two genres in which the plot tends to take precedence over characterization. This is the kind of fiction where the author's prowess with the details of the plot, what is revealed to the reader and how is it disclosed, is key to the success of the story.

Author Paul Levinson doesn't ignore characterization, however; NYPD forensic detective Phil D'Amato is a multi-layered protagonist who kept me engaged throughout the story. On the other hand, Levinson's plot turns on too many convenient coincidences; a waiter bumps a restaurant patron spilling the contents of her purse, the only item left behind for Phil to find turns out to be a critical clue. It's a failing that made The Consciousness Plague less than it might have been.

As the book opens D'Amato finds himself working on the Riverdale murders case. He also finds himself under the weather with a nasty cold that is likely to lead to the flu that's going around. When Claudia Gonzales, the police officer who was first on the scene at the first Riverside strangling, suffers an inexplicable loss of memory regarding the details of the crime scene and both Phil and his boss experience similar holes in their memories, the hunt for more than a killer is on. What's causing people to lose all recollection of certain events in their recent past? It's a mystery that steers the reader in intriguingly unexpected directions. To ancient Phoenicia to investigate the invention of the alphabet, to an Irish monastery to discover who really first sailed to the New World, and to Washington to lobby for controls on a new antibiotic.

Along the way there are more murders, more muddled memories and more time spent sifting through clues with D'Amato, his girlfriend Jenna, his NYPD boss Jack Dugan, and a half-dozen other characters. Paul Levinson first introduced readers to D'Amato in a series of novelettes in the 1990s and his comfort with his central character is one of this book's real strengths. Unfortunately, this ease shows up the relative sketchiness of some of the secondary players presented in The Consciousness Plague, particularly those running afoul of the law.

A credible villain is tremendously important to crime drama but in The Consciousness Plague I got the feeling that the murderer's motivations were almost an afterthought for Levinson. Certainly D'Amato's attentions are more focused on the science-fictional aspects of the story, the memory loss puzzle. And frankly it was the part of the book I was most drawn to as well. But where Greg Bear's Queen of Angels and The Turing Option by Harry Harrison and Marvin Minsky have both explored similar science-fiction territory within a crime drama format, The Consciousness Plague had a lesser impact on me because it wasn't as well-balanced a novel.

The science-fiction crime drama presents some wonderful opportunities to the writer but it also encompasses tremendous challenges. Levinson is close to mastering those challenges and hopefully future D'Amato adventures will prove that this author can captivate his audience whether they're in it for the mystery or the speculation.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 4 January 2003

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