Saturday, February 11, 2012

Review: "The Scarab" by Stavros Halvatzis

Egyptology plus sci-fi? Yes, please.

Stavros Halvatzis' debut novel, "The Scarab," starts off with an excavation in Egypt that ends in a mysterious death. A billionaire stands to profit from the death, and when a college student and a washed-out journalist get wind of what the billionaire's up to, they're forced to flee to South Africa -- not so coincidentally, the very site where that billionaire has traveled to put the finishing touches on his revolutionary computer chip/program. Can Emma and Jack figure out what he's doing and get the story of the century, or will they follow in the footsteps of Emma's slain tipster?

The Egyptology angle is, admittedly, a bit of a stretch. Little of the story is related to its roots in Egypt, aside from the beginning and the imagery of one of the key characters. It's not a book for people wanting to learn more about Egypt; what it is, is a fast-moving thriller. It goes a little too fast in the beginning as Halvatzis rushes to get his characters set on their path to Africa, and the hectic pacing continues there, but it's not so unforgivably fast that it's unreadable. (I do wish the author had spent more time on character development and less time on the graphic sex scenes that didn't add to the greater story arch. Jack and Emma's relationship, in particular, rushes from just-met to having kinky sex to falling in love over the course of several days, and it's hard to buy, especially when Emma comes off as -- well, a bit loose, we'll say.)

The scene where the computer chip developers first turn on their newly programmed creation is wonderfully written:
It could feel the flow of light through its mind, feel the infinitesimal knots of space-time granules course in and through it; matter-wave, wave-matter, it cared not which. It was the photon stream and the photon stream was it. Billions of minuscule knots of light chattering, now in unison, now in counterpoint, but always to a pattern. And that pattern was consciousness.

The computer sub-plot is the novel's strength and more than makes up for the weakness of the characters. Halvatzis ties in the knowledge gleaned from the tomb raid to computer science plausibly enough for this non-computer scientist. And, after all the time characters spend talking about writing a computer program that will, essentially, be alive, I was expecting the story to culminate with a computer consciousness gone awry. That didn't happen, and the course of action Halvatzis chose works well for the plot, for the characters and, most of all, for the resolution.

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