Stefan Rochfort,
God Shock
(TLA, 1999)

God Shock starts off with a bang and ends with another. Unfortunately, in the middle is a vast wasteland of complex yet uninteresting exposition. And while the action sequences are exciting enough to make one overlook Stefan Rochfort's limitations when it comes to the tools of his craft, the long middle sections display his flawed writing with unblinking clarity -- to the point that I spent over a week unsure if I'd be able to finish the novel, despite the obligations of the review, combined with my reluctance to stop any book partway through while I give its author every possible chance to intrigue me.

God Shock begins with some of the normal elements of cyberpunk, a genre of which I'm fond when it's done well. It then segues into a surrealistic part reminiscent of the TV series The Prisoner. This was the most interesting part of the book, as the protagonist and the reader tried to figure out what was going on, complete with oddly archaic tech (compared to the initial passages) and rewritten history.

Unfortunately, it doesn't last. First we learn that Athena, our protagonist, has been infected with a nanotech/virus hybrid which "optimizes" human functions by dramatically increasing intelligence while destroying emotional function. Athena talks repeatedly about this with fellow prisoner Rudolf, who coins the term "God Shock" to describe it. Were it not for the lengthy discussions this might have become an exploration of the interrelationship between emotion and intelligence; Rochfort takes the cliched view instead that sees them as opposed to each other.

Athena and Rudolf escape from the facility, and encounter a dystopia on their way to a utopia of lotus-eaters. Here the narrative is largely abandoned in favor of endless lumps of exposition (in Le Guin's phrase) which act upon the story as a clot of cholesterol acts upon a cardiac artery. The worldview, history, technology and biology of the world are elaborated at length; nonetheless, they did not impress me as being plausible or coherent. They were certainly not interesting. This is a mistake I see often, in many media; a context alluded to glancingly and obliquely is much more fascinating than the same context described explicitly, when all the errors, omissions and implausibilities are laid out for all to see.

We return to action eventually, but by then it's too late. Even a utopia crushing thermonuclear explosion couldn't pique my interest. A plague is averted, and that's nice. However, the most disturbing aspect of the book is here described favorably: the protagonists release a virus to murder all humans whose intellect is not sufficiently brilliant. Rochfort seems to view this as a pretty good idea. Considering the emotional idiocy with which all his characters face the world, however, the idea that they are the creme de la creme is truly dystopian.

I did find it curious that the God Shock that was so devastating to the characters in this novel could be seen as identical to the enlightenment sought by many of the world's spiritual traditions. I wish Rochfort had thought to discuss this contrast within the book's 290 pages.

I really can't recommend this book. Rochfort has, I think, some potential as a writer, but he needs substantial training and discipline to reach it. In particular, his grasp of punctuation is weaker than many schoolchildren's. He also needs to consider that the point of a novel, especially a genre novel, is not to give the author a forum in which to expound in a manner suited to late night discussions over beers; a novel ought to tell a story, and any exposition needs to be interwoven with the plot. Rochfort would be well advised to write some short stories, and use essays for his expositions; both are short forms that require discipline from the author, and such exercises could only improve Rochfort's abilities.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]
Rambles: 4 August 2001

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