The Lazarus Effect: Readable but not memorable

The Lazarus Effect by Frank Herbert & Bill Ransom science fiction book reviewsThe Lazarus Effect by Frank Herbert & Bill Ransom

The Lazarus Effect (1983) is part of the PANDORA SEQUENCE that Frank Herbert wrote with Bill Ransom. The series has its origin in Herbert’s 1966 novel Destination: Void, of which he published a revised edition in 1978, prior to the release of The Jesus Incident (1979), his first collaboration with Ransom. The Jesus Incident was rough around the edges, mostly because a copyright issue came up that required lots of last-minute rewriting. The Lazarus Effect was written in a less frantic fashion but, interesting enough, The Jesus Incident turned out better.

The sentient kelp is dead and its stabilizing influence on Pandora’s oceans is sorely missed. All land surface has disappeared under the waves and humanity has devised two ways of surviving in a place that is, if possible, even more hostile to human life. Part of the population, the Islanders, lives in huge, crowded floating cities but the majority, the Mermen, moved beneath the waves. Kelp DNA has been stored in humanity’s own gene pool through the experiment of the geneticist Jesus Lewis, causing a whole string of genetic defects in large parts of the population. Now, some seek to harvest the rewards of Lewis’ foresight and reintroduce the kelp. Some even believe that this will bring back Ship, who seems to have abandoned his worshippers. Reintroducing the kelp will mean the end of a way of life however, and not everybody is pleased about this decision being taken by a small group of people on behalf of the whole of humanity. Tensions run high when the first signs of Avata’s return become apparent.

The Lazarus Effect is a much smoother read than The Jesus Incident. The writing is more polished, more uniform. It also lacks the poetic flourishes that Ransom added to the previous book. Given the history of these two volumes, some difference was to be expected but I was surprised by how much the prose had changed. The Jesus Incident is not an easy read, and the prose certainly contributes to that, but I think Herbert and Ransom lost something in the polishing as well.

Thematically, tyranny is very much at the forefront of the story. Some draconian rules have been put in place regarding children born with very serious birth defects. Deviate too much from what is considered normal — which, it must be said, is quite a stretch from what we would recognize as a normal variation of the human body — and the child is not allowed to live. One of the main characters is a judge on the panel deciding on such cases on one of the floating cities. He is a very interesting character, feeling completely justified in deciding over life and death, and on the other hand highly suspicious and dismissive of the Mermen project to bring back the kelp, feeling the Merman are forcing a decision on the Islanders without taking their interests into account. His reaction to the kelp and the cults it has inspired among the Mermen is, if possible, even more interesting.

Mermen and Islanders don’t always seem to be at odds, though. Part of the story is made up of a romance between an Islander boy and a Mermen girl who set aside all preconceived notions and ignore blatant prejudice after she saves him from drowning. It’s an interesting reversal of the damsel in distress trope, but I thought the whole thing was a bit cheesy to be honest. As this love story is the backbone of the plot, the novel as a whole doesn’t seem quite as intellectually challenging as most of Herbert’s other novels. There is plenty hiding under the surface, but not nearly as much going on at the forefront as what I’ve come to expect from Herbert.

In terms of the challenges presented to Pandoran society, The Lazarus Effect is classic Herbert. His motto ‘the only constant is change’ clearly shows through in this novel. Herbert and Ransom describe a society that had to adapt to radically different environmental conditions and is now on the verge of reversing some of that change. It is these moments of punctuated equilibrium, if you will, that fascinates Herbert and The Lazarus Effect is a good example of that. Change is imminent in many areas, a species is being brought back from extinction (the title of the novel is a reference to Lazarus of Bethany, a figure from the Gospel of John restored to life by Jesus), environmental changes on a large scale are dooming a way of life, religious convictions are challenged by the rebirth of the kelp and regaining access to orbital space flight. Change is rapid and profound in The Lazarus Effect.

I must admit I found the premise of the novel and the large scale developments Herbert and Ransom describe fascinating, but I didn’t care for most of the characters. The judge is mildly interesting, the lovers are not. There are a few other characters I haven’t mentioned thus far, including a terrorist, a diplomat, and a ridiculously stupid historian. None of these are really engaging. Most of them seem to miss the sharpness, awareness and deep insights Herbert’s more interesting characters share. Ship’s unpredictable presence is also sorely missed in this novel. In short I had to really dig to find things I like in The Lazarus Effect. They are buried under a somewhat unfocussed plot, featuring bland and largely uninteresting characters. Add to that the unremarkable prose and you end up with a novel that’s readable but certainly not memorable. I’m hoping for better things from the concluding volume of the PANDORA SEQUENCE.


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ROB WEBER, a regular guest at FanLit, developed a fantasy and science fiction addiction as well as a worrying Wheel of Time obsession during his college years. While the Wheel of Time has turned, the reading habit that continues to haunt him long after acquiring his BSc in environmental science. Rob keeps a blog at Val’s Random Comments.

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