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Caleb Carr

Random House, 2001

Reviewed by Jennifer Ashley

Caleb Carr takes a departure from historical mysteries in this futuristic thriller reminiscent of sci-fi of the Victorian era.

This Jules Verne-esque story begins in 2023, when the widow of a special effects wizard approaches Gideon Wolfe, a historian and criminal psychologist, and tells him that the man in prison for the assassination of the president of the United States was framed, and that her husband, who has recently been murdered, helped fabricate the evidence. She leaves him a disk, and Gideon contacts a private investigator friend to go over it with him. They discover that the data on the disk had been altered and that the man the world had seen shoot the President was actually a doctored digital image.

While they muse, Gideon's friend is shot down in front of him. Gideon flees. He travels to a Florida prison to interview a man his friend suggested might have answers. But while Gideon talks with the strangely tranquil man, the prison is broken into by a bizarre hovering ship, and both Gideon and the prisoner are taken aboard.

In the ship, an amalgam of nineteenth-century elegance and futuristic spacecraft, Gideon finds a gathering of geniuses led by the invalid Malcolm and his beautiful sister. These masterminds, appalled at what the world has become (overly polluted, disease-ridden, and everyone controlled by the media via the Internet), have banded together to try to right the wrongs.

Gideon finds himself drawn into their plots. They have proved that doctoring information on the Internet can lead to mass disruption, and they intend to bring down the world and start anew. Although Gideon sympathizes with their desires, he grows alarmed at their practices and at Malcolm's ideas. In the end, he flees them, and they pursue, thriller style.

Carr takes many of the ideas of late nineteenth-century writers (H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Conan Doyle's "sci-fi" adventures) and combines them with modern social concerns, wrapping them together into this fast-paced thriller.

I can't say I liked the book: as a science fiction reader for thirty years, I've seen this kind of idea done and done and done. Ron Goulart was spoofing stories like this in the 70s. Also the ending was deus ex machina--everyone wakes up one morning with all the problems solved--although by that time nothing else could have resolved everything the author had set up.

Fans of Carr's might enjoy his take on a futuristic novel; fans of sci-fi have read the story in many manifestations before.

THE ANGEL OF DARKNESS has also been reviewed.

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