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Charisma is a good idea in need of a good writer

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It is not that I really hate Steven Barnes’ books. If that was true, I would not try to read one from time to time. I don’t do it because he is a fellow writer living in the Pacific Northwest, either. If that was the case, I would be able to tolerate Michael Crichton in book form. I read an occasional Barnes book because I am always hoping he will win me over. So, far, he has failed to do so. My most recent venture into Barnesville, Charisma, reveals why.

An African-American has risen to household name stature due to his business acumen, status as a military hero, intelligence and political aspirations. Indeed, the man ran for president during the 1980s, without the civil rights movement baggage that holds Rev. Jesse Jackson back, before suddenly withdrawing. His death, equally sudden, was mysterious.

Jump forward to almost now. Throughout the country, some low-income children at risk for failure, academically and socially, are adolescents. Delve closely and you will discover that more than 1000 of them who attended the same chain of daycare centers are behaving exceptionally, becoming intellectual standouts when the rules of the American game say they shouldn’t be. After all, they are supposed to be genetically and/or culturally inferior.

Unfortunately, their notable behavior is not limited to be precociousness. Some of them have been plagued by violent, sexually oriented dreams since they were in kindergarten. The children at the daycare center in Claremont, Washington, a small lumber town near Portland, were briefly the focus of one of those sex abuse cases that were too common during the 1980s and 1990s. No evidence of molestation was found and the case unraveled after ruining the caretakers.

Not everyone has lost interest in the children of the daycare chain. A group of six men is systematically killing them off. Two of the children in Claremont are on their list and a third soon will be. A fourth, a girl who moved to California, has already been run down by a speeding car as she rode her bicycle to the store. All of the men used to work for the great American success story, Alexander Marcus. With him since his tour in Vietnam, he called them his Praetorian Guard.

So far, so good. We have the elements for a compelling plot. Unfortunately, that plot will be undermined by unnecessary twists and turns and poor writing.

The other most important element of a novel, characterization, will be similarly semi-mangled. Among the characters are:

  • Renny Sand — A tabloid reporter who is in the doghouse because he made up a source for a story that went national for Marcus Publications’ flagship medium. Sand is supposedly a failure — until he gets a job at a major daily at the end of the book, something that would not happen if he was really a failure. Barnes positions Sand as a hero of the book, but the character never does much of anything. Sand’s main phyiscal conflict is turning his Stairmaster up so high he can’t keep up with it and tumbling off. Like quite a few male sci-fi writers, Barnes has inserted a version of himself into the book and the character, obviously out of place, is an embarassment.
  • Patrick Emory — A 13-year-old boy who will bear the brunt of the plot. His mild-mannered adult friends will be driven from their homey cafe by a drug dealing motorcycle gang. His father will be murdered by the racist leader of the cyclists. He and his pals are targeted by Marcus’ Praetorian Guard. The violence that is barely controlled in Patick will come out.
  • Vivian Emory — Patrick’s mother and Renny Sand’s love interest. She met Sand years ago during the Claremont daycare center trial and has never forgotten that brief encounter. Right.
  • The Praetorian Guard — They exist as more of an entity than as individuals. The only individualized member is Tristan D’Angelo, the owner of a second-rate theme town out West and the group’s leader. Unfortunately, he doesn’t make an appearance until the end of the novel, too late to do much to save it.
  • Kelly Kerrigan — The heroine of the book. She is a former national security agent who worked a stint with Marcus’ men. Possessing the acumen and ability the hero lacks, she, with some help from the children, eventually saves the day.
  • Among the plotting errors are a section of the novel in which gay weight-lifters make out and attack and rape members of the motorcycle gang while children are watching. The parts devoted to Renny Sand are boring and and only lengthen the book, except during the relatively few pages when he picks up Marcus’ secret trail. Too much time is spent trying to convince the reader Vivian, a seamstress, is a mistress of creativity. Another notable mistake is Barnes’ tendency to allow both characters and parts of the plot to disappear. The mild-mannered cafe owners and their sons are never heard from again despite the successful effort to prevent them from being run out of town. The weight wielding ‘bears’ also disappear once they have been used in the assault and rape scene. Even two of the Claremont daycare kids are dropped from the story.

    I also must comment on violence in the novel. It is overdone for a book whose message is supposed to be intelligence is the key to successful maneuvers. Barnes sometimes seems to glory in violence for violence sake, describing it in loving detail.

    The major saving grace of the novel is its theme: Inprinting ‘values’ may lead to both laudatory and horrendous behavior because people who appear to be admirable are sometimes very imperfect.

    Charisma, named after the summer camp where the Praetorians entrap 50 of the children, eventually lumbers to a conclusion. This reader was relieved.

    I am not going to urge people not to read Steven Barnes. However, I can’t recommend him as an example of contemporary science fiction writing at its best, either. This idea would have resulted in a good book if it had been written by one of his better equipped peers. Given a choice between Barnes and other writers who mine the vein of race and class in speculative fiction, including Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson and veteran Samuel Delaney, I prefer to spend my time with them.

    Note: My blog is Mac-a-ro-nies.

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