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REVIEW: Prodigy by Dave Kalstein

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.

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

7 Comments on REVIEW: Prodigy by Dave Kalstein

  1. Charlie Bains // January 27, 2006 at 1:10 pm //

    The best near future sci-fi thriller I’ve read recently is 3000 Years. One way time travel (time suppression) story takes place in 2055 with nano-hackers, mood bars, interface walls and lots of logical social and behavioral extrapolation.

  2. I am almost finished with the book. I love it. I am not usually a futuristic type book lover but, this book is excellent; and it is one book that I would recommend to eveyone. I would read it again.

    Kudos to the author.

  3. This book was awful. It’s a movie script mascarading as a novel. As scifi, this book failed to provide a plausable near-future. For example, an EMP diasaster on the east coast (taken right out of the TV show, “Dark Angel”) causes California’s population to boom to such an extent that San Fran and LA are now merged together. What? No one moved to Texas? No one stayed to rebuild the east coast?

    The idea of the Stansbury school as the nation’s best R&D center is also ridiculous. First, if the school had such excellent results with its students, surely other institutions would copy the approach. The book stated that Stansbury school was making millions on its patents on its supplements and pharma products, so who was paying to license these products? Why not Cal Poly or MIT? Second, why even consider being a private school and charging tuition when there are millions to be made in licensing technology?

    The book is very slow. Kalstein spends far too many paragraphs on background information that adds very little to the story. For example, the piece about the football player from Stansbury goes on for a number of pages but ultimately doesn’t have a point. Only a few characters are really developed. Worse, it’s hard to beleive the motivations of the villians.

    Kalstein’s vision of Stansbury is very cliche. Girls in plaid skirts and knee socks? Big, good-looking bulky guys? These are just a few of the made-for-Hollywood conventions he uses. I find it hard to believe such a shallow, un-original book can be published.

  4. i actually loved this book, a lot, im not usually big on readingh sci-fi, but this book was amazing, sure, some of the stuff was a lil crazy, but thats wat sci fi is all about, isnt it? i relle enjoyed it and reccomend it to anyone lookin to read a great book.

  5. some kid // August 5, 2007 at 1:47 am //

    I thought it was a really good book. Quite entertaining if you are into reading about possible future situations and thinking about them. I recommend it.

  6. Anonymous // March 7, 2009 at 12:31 pm //

    This book sucked…the author filled it with a bunch of uneccessary details that were insignificant to the plot.  The plot did not require 322 pages and he could have got it done withe the same affect on the reader in 150.

  7. Jimmy Turbine // May 9, 2012 at 3:16 pm //

    Well, I finished what I thought was a new book seeing as it was in the New Releases section of my local library. Oops. Maybe back in 2006 all of the cliched character interactions that exist in this book on top of the author’s casual disregard to his own setups to further drama didn’t exist and/or were accepted. But in 2012 OMFG does this book suck as a literary product. It is so obvious it was written for the screen. All that said, if you can get best many of the mistakes Kalstein’s editors should have caught and forced upon the author to rewrite and/or correct, it is a rather entertaining and quick read despite the sheer implausibility of the story as a whole.

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