REVIEW SUMMARY: A worthwhile near-future science fiction thriller.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An unlikely pair of students from a prestigious school that educates via designer drugs, team up to solve the mystery of murdered alumni.
PROS: Cool near-future setting; raises thought-provoking issues; crisp, clear writing style.
CONS: Slow to get started; some minor suspension killers.
BOTTOM LINE: A thought-provoking and entertaining read.
The Stansbury School is the most prestigious private school in the year 2036. Candidates are screened at age 5 and attend for the next twelve years if their parents can afford the $500,000 per year tuition to send them there or if a kid is one of the lucky ten chosen in the annual lottery that wins them a free education. The benefit of attending Stansbury is clear: all of the students (with very, very few exceptions) go on to attend top universities and eventually become the nation’s leaders. How does Stansbury do it? They do it through the heavy use of designer drugs that enhance the mental and physical growth of the children. Stansbury seniors are smarter and stronger (and taller) than the average teenager. If it weren’t for the drugs’ built-in inhibitors, in fact, they would be lethal weapons. The use of drugs and loss of childhood innocence is seen as an acceptable cost to achieving the education and success that only Stansbury can provide.
Unfortunately, some of Stansbury’s alumni are turning up dead. They are the victims of murder and the culprit appears to be William Winston Cooley, wayward student who won his education through a lottery. Since a series of messy murders promise to threaten the school’s reputation, not to mention a pending trillion-dollar government grant, the school’s administrators decides to handle matters without the police. Days away from his graduation, they dispatch valedictorian Thomas Oliver Goldsmith (it is an unspoken requirement that all of Stansbury’s elite students are addressed by their full names), who doubles as a deputized member of school security, to investigate the murders and Cooley’s involvement.
The near-future setting of Prodigy is cool. The incorporated city of San Angeles suffers from overpopulation due to an electromagnetic pulse bomb (eBomb) that killed all electronics on the east coast and caused everyone to head west. Travel is mainly through the use of gyrocabs zipping around the sky lanes. Stansbury security walks around with ThermaGuns that detect and lock onto a person’s unique heat signature so its bullets can turn corners to find an all-too-common human target. Cool stuff indeed. Society is also sufficiently interesting as the school “Specimens” (as the students are openly called) are locked away in the remote Stansbury tower, hardly ever seen in public. When they do make the rare excursion, they have minor celebrity status.
Kalstein’s writing is clear and crisp and the plot is obviously well thought-out, but there are a small handful of suspension killers and awkward moments – like when bad boy Cooley receives an illegal drug injection over the Internet. That’s matter-transportation and doesn’t really fit the near-future setting that is so carefully and wonderfully drawn. But moments like these are few and fleeting and are only minor detractors. Better were the characterizations of Goldsmith, Cooley and their friends Camilla (Goldmsith’s academic rival), Sadie (Cooley’s girlfriend), Stansbury President Lang, and even the reporter Pete who may be more than he seems.
As a science fiction thriller, Prodigy is ultimately effective although I must say that it took some time for it to become that way. Nearly the first third of the book is slow going with not much happening other than long character background narratives which, while interesting, didn’t do much to move the story along. A “show, don’t tell” approach may have been more effective in, say, showing how valedictorian Goldsmith and bottom-rung Cooley are an unlikely team to uncover a plot that extends into the U.S government. Still, as it stands, that slow beginning thankfully turned quite interesting and then became downright page-turning when the plot twists were bandied about like a roller-coaster car on speed. Not bad for a first novel at all.
But it’s not just the cool setting and interesting mystery that make this book stand out. One of the more compelling virtues of Prodigy is the questions it raises. The Specimens’ achievements are only possible because of a daily injection of the latest drugs. Can you get a perfect education via a syringe? Many of the students feel lost, lonely and friendless; detached from the very society for which they are being groomed. Is a good education worth cost? Several Specimens are caught breaking school rules and are blindfolded, beaten and interrogated by the Security staff (led by the truly evil Captain Gibson). To what extent should a school be allowed to violate an eighteen-year-old’s civil liberties? These are some of the meaty questions that are raised and nicely handled in a way that makes for a thought-provoking read.