The Silk Code

Posted by : atcampbell | On : May 1, 2001

The Silk Code by Paul Levinson

Fourteen people attended this meeting, including one first-time participant. The topic of this meeting was Paul Levinson’s first novel, The Silk Code. Levinson is well known in the SF community as (now former) President of the Science Fiction Writers of America. The Silk Code is a near-future SF police novel featuring a New York forensic detective, Phil D’Amato, who was the protagonist of several stories published in Analog. In this book, D’Amato investigates a series of murders and gets wrapped up in a complicated conspiracy involving Amish scientists and a hidden society of Neanderthals. Nine of us had read the book.

This book starts off well with a fast-paced first section, in which D’Amato has his initial encounter with the scientific Amish. He faces weird scientific threats including incendiary fireflies. We enjoyed how he applies logic and scientific knowledge to get himself out of trouble. Levinson’s clean prose style, combined with the familiar structure of the detective novel, made the book easy to read. Most of us thought we were on the verge of reading a good novel.

Unfortunately the book started falling apart with the next section. Abruptly we were reading a slow-paced 80-page story set in 750 AD. The events and characters have no apparent connection to what we read earlier. One person noted that this story was politically correct, since it featured an Arab, a Jew, a Druid, and a Moslem. We started to wonder if we were reading a short story collection rather than a novel. After this section ends, the narrative jumps back to D’Amato in the 21st Century. Ultimately we discover a marginal connection between his story and the historical sequence, but we did not find it important enough to justify the flashback’s length and how it killed the book’s narrative momentum.

After the detective story resumes, we hope that the book is back on track. But then Levinson introduces several wacky scientific elements that one person felt “read like an overly dramatic Discover article”. Many new characters are introduced into the story, only to turn up dead a few pages later. One man’s death is attributed to his wife changing the sheets in their bed. D’Amato’s investigation causes him to fly overseas twice, and one person in our group who’d worked in law enforcement felt there was no way his boss would pay for such an expense. A coupled of cliched villains are eventually introduced, and we get an unsatisfying ending that seems culled from a bad monster movie.

I must admit that before the meeting I suspected opinions on this book would be mixed, and I even predicted who in the group would like the book most and least. While I was correct about the mixed reaction, I could not have been more wrong about who would like or hate the book. The person I thought would like the book least, who generally prefers literary SF, had been through a hectic couple of weeks and enjoyed the break of reading an unchallenging, easy-to-read book. The Analog fan I predicted would like the book most actually turned out to hate it for the poor storytelling and bad science.

Ultimately we decided that The Silk Code failed as SF and as a mystery. Many of us liked parts of the book, but not enough to recommend it. We thought Levinson showed potential for becoming a good writer, but feel he has a long way to go. After the meeting, several of us had a nice dinner at the Serrano’s at Symphony Square.

–A. T. Campbell, III