Riding the crest of a wave of hype proclaiming it the summer beach novel of 2009 (and if things go as I'm sure Warren Fahy's agent intends, the summer blockbuster movie of 2010), Fragment is effectively summed up by the tagline on the UK edition's cover: it's Jurassic Park for the Lost generation. That Jurassic Park is now considered sufficiently retro that present-day audiences need their own refresh of the concept is one of those things designed to make a gloomy gus like me feel exceedingly old. But then, nothing can cheer me up when I'm gloomy quite like a smashing eaten-by-monsters story.
Fragment enthusiastically delivers its share of awesome eaten-by-monsters moments. Its centerpiece, a chase scene in which three hapless humans on foot run for dear life pursued by roughly twenty million running, leaping, hopping, flying, and extremely hungry monsters, may well go down in eaten-by-monsters-story history. Seriously, the eaten-by-monsters stuff in this book? Full of win! Fragment mops the floor with Jurassic Park in its best moments and puts it to shame completely when it comes to lending scientific plausibility to its premise.
On a broader level — say, on its merits as a novel overall — Fragment falls short of the hype, as heavily hyped entertainment often does. If only Fahy had given us something more than stock characters to invest ourselves in emotionally, I'd have been more willing to let the story's visceral entertainment value — high by any standard — sweep aside my critical nitpicks. I will say that if the publishing industry has been frantic to find someone new to fill the late Michael Crichton's shoes, it looks like they've found him in Warren Fahy. For better and for worse.
The cinematic approach to novel writing that became Crichton's calling card has been well mastered by Fahy. Fragment doesn't have the narrative architecture of a novel so much as that of a movie. It has the three-act structure of a screenplay. Loved acts one and two, but act three, not so much. Fahy doesn't drop the ball or anything. It's that he grips it a little too tightly. As the novel rushes towards its big finish, Fahy just gives himself over body and soul to Hollywood blockbuster formula. So we end up with characters filling clichéd roles, doing pretty much exactly what we expect them to when we expect it, and a race-against-time climax that doesn't have quite the suspense it could because you know that Fahy will not — as his characters constantly advise each other — "think outside the box," and everything will turn out A-OK. Even if Fahy has to whip out a deus ex machina to get us to A-OK. Which he does.
Now if you know all that going in, and it's all you expect, fine, you'll not be disappointed. I tend to hold even potboiler novels to a higher standard than I do any old dumb movie. Thing is, Fragment doesn't deserve to be dismissed as a potboiler, if the preparation Fahy put into it is any mitigator. He's up on his evolutionary biology. In a country so full of anti-science sentiment that morons will actually sink millions into fake museums promoting creationism, Fahy's willingness to write a popular novel that keeps the science in science fiction is enough for me to forgive him almost anything.
Quick synopsis: there's an uncharted island in the South Pacific, which is where all the best uncharted islands are. Ask anyone. They'll tell you the three criteria for any cool uncharted island: location, location, location. The North Atlantic? So not a desirable zip code for an uncharted island, people.
This island, however, is even less hospitable to unwary sailors and clueless tourists than the next island over, which would be Cthulhu's R'lyeh. Henders Island is a fragment of an archaean supercontinent that's been isolated from the rest of the world for so long — think eons — that its indigenous life has evolved all on its own path. And with extremely limited resources to work with, this is the freakiest, most savage ecosystem imaginable. The island's bizarre menagerie of unique creatures — crazy little "ants" in the form of rolling discs; "rats" with eight limbs, no proper skeleton, and stalked eyes; massive spider-like predators the size of tigers; and everything seemingly descended from marine arthropods — are stupefyingly ferocious. When a team of seafaring scientists doing a reality TV show make an unplanned stop (story cliché #1: in response to an emergency beacon) on Henders' shores, becoming the first people to set foot there in over 200 years, nearly all of them are slaughtered in minutes. Everything eats everything on Henders. The only reason there's life there at all is because its creatures are hermaphrodites that are constantly giving birth to live young that are themselves pregnant at birth! Cthulhu wouldn't last ten minutes on Henders.
For an eaten-by-monsters story, Fahy has done an exhaustive amount of work in conceiving Henders' lifeforms. The way he details how and why such life evolved in isolation rings true, at least to a reasonably well-read evolutionary layman like myself. Fahy has one of his protagonists, Woods Hole biologist Geoffrey Binswanger, offer an interesting hypothesis connecting the life expectancy of species to their reproductive strategies, and this plays a role in the credibility of Fahy's creatures. Even their one Achilles Heel, which I won't spoil, is given a convincing scientific basis.
Everything's great as long as Fahy has his beasties turning people and each other into red, squishy confetti. Good stuff for gorehounds here. Frankly, I didn't really buy Fahy's reasons for why Nell Duckworth, one of the reality show's only survivors, keeps going back to this terrifying tropical splatter circus, not just once, but twice. But she does give the book a relatable heroine in the midst of growing international concern over the possibility of Henders' life getting to the mainland (and the anxious US government's panic that terrorists might get their hands on these critters and turn them into the ultimate bioweapons — never mind that any terrorist who set foot on Henders would end up monster-brunch in about 9½ seconds).
Where it all fizzles into Michael Bay-level tosh for me is in its final third. The story gets a twist, which is not bad as far as it goes. But it shifts the tone of the book from aaah-we're-being-eaten-by-monsters to warm-and-fuzzy, and by now you should know which of those you prefer. Fahy's heroes are cool as long as their personalities are at the fore. But when Geoffrey and Nell go from being scientists in a crisis to simply being The Guy and The Girl in an action thriller, mundanity sets in. When they get together, it's entirely perfunctory — they're only hooking up because The Guy and The Girl are expected to in Hollywood formula. Moreover, Fahy offers an arch-villain who is the definition of one dimensional. When he turns up, you know more or less what will happen, unless you've been living on a deserted South Pacific island yourself all your life. You know this arch-villain will do something archly villainous, our normally clever heroes will foolishly trust him so that he can get away with it in the first place, and it will require a frenzied bit of damage control in the last 20 pages to make right. Fragment, so full of imaginative surprises and grotesque pleasures in its first half, offers fewer and fewer of them even as the pacing shifts into high gear for the climax.
Still, readers looking for an adrenalizing escapist roller coaster ride and don't give a damn if it gets a bit bumpy will be very happy they lined up for this one. If you enjoyed Jurassic Park the book, you'll enjoy Fragment. If you enjoyed Jurassic Park the movie, you'll really enjoy Fragment. And if you didn't like Jurassic Park all that much except for that first T.Rex scene, then a fragment of Fragment ought to do you just fine. Read up to around page 200, and you're good.