Scott Mackay,
(Roc, 2004)

Although there's been a buzz surrounding his work since Outpost was published back in 1998, Omnifix is my first foray into the fiction of Toronto writer Scott Mackay. Because I haven't read any other Mackay novels I can't comment on how his writing may vary from book to book. But in Omnifix, he has struck a decidedly Philip K. Dick pose in terms of writing style. There is a simplicity to the flow of words, a distinctly retro approach to Mackay's future and an underlying atmosphere of distrust and conspiracy. The combination is gripping. For a time.

As with Dick's stage sets in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldridge, I don't truly buy into the future that Mackay has posited in Omnifix. But it hardly matters. The society in which Dr. Alex Denyer lives, with its plastic corporate towers, grotesque cybernetic-human hybrids and mysterious alien diseases -- known simply as No. 16 and No. 17 -- is a deliberately distorted image. Against this surreal backdrop the interactions of the characters remain completely recognizable and it's the contrast between the familiar and the fantastic that sets Omnifix apart. For a time.

James Morrow has used a similar technique in his series of fantasy novels about the death of God, Towing Jehovah, Blameless in Abaddon and The Eternal Footman. The difference is that Morrow is a wonderfully talented wordsmith. Mackay is not. There are numerous instances where Mackay's choice of words struck me as not just lackluster but cut-and-paste lazy.

An example: on page 182 Mackay's protagonist is exploring an abandoned alien ship and comments to his partner, "These adhesions are most likely munitions, fighters, or other war materiel in various stages of manufacture." On the following page Mackay writes, "The polyps did indeed turn out to be munitions, fighters, and other war materiel in various stages of manufacture."

Fortunately, Mackay's plotting is somewhat stronger than his style. Omnifix chugs along at a brisk pace as Alex Denyer becomes embroiled in a series of plots devised by his powerful, power-addicted cousin Graham. Alex is cast from his comfortable existence in the Defederacy and discovers the harsh reality of life in the EMZs (Emergency Medical Zones), home to the infected, the victims of the alien "nanogen" virus known as No. 16. Alex's teenaged son Daryl is a No. 16 and this family connection allows Alex to believably metamorphose from being a blinkered member of the Defederacy's scientific elite to someone pursuing justice for the disenfranchised.

But from the standpoint of believability, there are too many close calls along the way. The moment when Alex manages to return with his injured partner to the bridge of their spaceship with only a single second to spare before they would have missed their return orbit window is but one example.

So if you're looking for a science fiction adventure that doesn't demand too much of the reader and delivers on the excitement front, Omnifix is a worthwhile read. Unfortunately, given the strength of the opening chapters, I was hoping for more.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 31 July 2004

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