The Silk Code
by Paul Levinson
Review by Kevin Hayes

I only read The Silk Code by Paul Levinson once. Other people I've talked to mentioned how they try to read something they plan to review twice. Once to get the over-all impression of the piece and a second time to note and appreciate (or not) the subtlety of detail and structure.

Well, I'm flying this buggy by the seat of my pants. Hopefully, I can give my impressions after just one read and without a copy of the book at hand for ready reference.

On the whole, I enjoyed reading The Silk Code. At Confluence in February, I heard Paul Levinson read excerpts from his novel and later had the opportunity to discuss elements of it with him. This was enough to intrigue me to read it. The story is broken down into three main movements. First movement is actually a short story Levinson had published in Asimov's (I believe) which he re-worked to dovetail into the rest of his novel. He uses to section to introduce Phil D'Amato-a New York based forensic scientist-hero of the modern segments. He also introduces the concepts of centuries-old bio-engineering techniques and a vast (or perhaps not so vast) conspiracy dedicated to its own dark purposes-as all conspiracies are.

The next section takes us into the far distant past and introduces us to the idea of the "singers." Singers are described as heavy-browed, heavy-jawed, bulky and enormously strong. The intriguing idea is that Neanderthals somehow survived into, at least, relatively modern times and that their primary mode of communication is by singing. The singing they use is of a purity so profound that it elicits a complete understanding on an emotional level as well as an intellectual one.

This section follows the hero of the section, who starts as a fourteen year-old boy, on his odyssey around his ancient world to meet the Singers. His quest is to try to understand why some people of his acquaintance developed a disease which turned them into Singers just before killing them. In his travels, which he records in a journal, he learns from the Singers in a cinematic joining of cave pictures, the true history of the world and answers to other questions, as well.

In the last section, we re-meet Phil D'Amato and follow his investigation into the death of a man who looks like a Neanderthal. This recently deceased person also has the unfortunately situation of having a body that carbon-dates to seem 30,000 years old.

Silk-if I may be allowed the obvious analogy-is woven through all of the latter portion of the story, providing the tantalizing thread by which the mystery unravels. Part of the cure, part of the cause; it takes the whole bio-engineering element to new interesting extremes.

The remainder of the story is spent following Phil D'Amato as he tries feverishly to figure out why people are dying all around him and why their bodies all resemble Neanderthals when they do. He is alternately infected by some unknown party with unusual, deadly diseases, then cured by his Amish friends introduced in the first chapter/ section.

All wonderful ideas, neatly cut to fit into an interesting puzzle. But not to give too glowing a report...I had some real problems with some elements of his story. I never felt his characters in the latter half of the book were as distinctly drawn as those in the first half. Levinson never really explained the carbon-dating red herring to my satisfation. And the short story adaptation for the first section still reads very independently of the rest of the book.

I loved his excursion into the ancient past and the search for the Singers. I wish modern New York and London were as interesting as ancient Afghanistan and the Iberian penninsula. And through it all, Phil watches his friends and acquaintances drop dead, or almost dead, from something he can't quite explain. No emotional turmoil, no grief and very little worry distracts him from his pursuit of the answer. I was puzzled by that. I'm sure a good cop will follow the case to the end, but I just couldn't see how this Italian Ubermensch could do it without a greater concern for his own survival and the survival of his friends and family.

Even though the mystery is comfortably resolved, there are still a number of loose ends. I half expect Dr. D'Amato to appear in some future novel, again beset by the vast shadowy conspiracy only he and the Amish have any knowledge of.

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