Saturday, May 16, 2015

Reality on Redial

Review: Dead Lines by Greg Bear

For those who would dine on old, dead dreams of glory, Hollywood is always willing to set a place at the table. In his house in the Glendale Hills, Peter Russell has been dining for years on his defunct dream. 

A one-time creator of “nudie films” and Playboy cartoons, he planned novels, plays, short stories that somehow never were completed. Peter’s creative stream was first diverted by the easy sex of his heyday, and then dammed up by the murder of one of his twin daughters.

Now he retains just enough charm to get by. He provides the likable “face” of business for a misanthropic millionaire, and charms the trophy wife of his employer, his remaining daughter, and just about every woman he meets (except his ex-wife). And even though he is not in the movie business anymore, he does still have connections.

Those connections bring him an innovative new cell phone, a hefty commission check, and an exciting chance to get back in the game. He will create a complete marketing campaign for the Trans, an eerily clear communication device that, according to the inventor, taps into a space “below our world, lower than networks used by atoms or subatomic particles, to where it is very quiet.”

What if some of the things you see every day aren’t really there? What if they just look normal? You seldom compare notes with anybody, do you? You don’t bring along a video camera and record every minute of your daily life to see what you might have seen that wasn’t there after all.

Even as he dreams of revived glory, the spirit of Rod Serling is waiting to detour him into nightmare. Peter’s “signpost up ahead” is a phone call to let him know his best friend is dead. After that call, his life becomes more like a Twilight Zone episode with each passing day. His dead daughter, his deceased friend, and a host of other “ghosts”, living and not, begin to haunt his life.

Peter’s efforts to understand these things take him from one memorable extreme to another: he consults a charismatic psychic, takes a funereal road-trip to San Francisco to dump his friend’s ashes in the sea, and visits a famous prison-turned-office bloc where the death chamber is now the server room for a telecommunications startup. Phone calls from Prague and an invisible chess opponent come to seem equally mundane in Peter’s new world, as the tale moves in increments from creepy understanding to real horror, ending in a crashing climax of fire and discovery.

Greg Bear’s Dead Lines is truly spooky, in the way ghost stories seldom are after we enter our cynical middle years. Peter, like most of Bear’s readers, does not believe in psychics, ghosts or paranormal powers. He may not be happy, but at least he is content with his life and himself. The power of Bear’s story is that we understand how Peter loses both that easy contentment and his disbelief.

We travel with him on his downhill path to the queasy realization that Hamlet was right. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies. And if we’re lucky, none of them have our cell phone numbers.

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