Friday, August 2, 2013

Fringe: The Zodiac Paradox

I am generally a fan of books and graphic novel/comic expansions of the television shows I love. Especially when the show has ended and I miss the world and the characters of that show. I've got a collection of Doctor Who books, Supernatural books, the Buffy comic tie-ins and continued seasons; I think it takes a special sort of writer to capture the atmosphere of a television show in a novel and to find the voices of the characters of that show without the actors who have made them what they are. Many people think these books should entirely stand alone as something that would reintroduce the entire world of the media series, but I disagree. These stories build on a world that their readers are assumed to already be familiar with and would not interest their target audience if they were basically a recap of the entire series.

When Titan Books decided to release a series of official Fringe tie-in novels written by Christa Faust and expanding the Fringe world I made excited noises. Here is a world with so much storytelling potential and so many fantastic characters; whom I desperately miss. Would this series be any good? Would Christa Faust get the voices of my beloved team right and add to the amazing array of stories coming out of Fringe?

Faust has been commissioned to write three prequel novels, one for each of the Fringe team from the series; Walter Bishop, Olivia Dunham and Peter Bishop. Olivia's story will focus on the Cortexiphan trials and her teenage years while Peter's will delve into his shady black market dealings in 2008 just before the series began.

The Zodiac Paradox, Walter’s book and the first of the series, takes us back to 1968/1974 and a young Water Bishop, William Bell and Nina Sharp. The trio are investigating their scientific potential and discovering who they really are as scientists and as people. The Cortexiphan trials, their families, the Fringe team and the world of the show are all in their future. During an experiment that Bell and Walter undertake involving a hallucinogenic concoction, they open a portal to another version of reality. An alternate universe. Unbeknownst to them, they allow a terrifying serial killer into our world through the portal and now have to stop him before he kills more people.

Follow me under the jump for more about this exciting official Fringe tie-in!

Before reading on, if you need to get reacquainted with the show's plot and characters you can check out my series review here!

Note: There are some mild spoilers for the book included in this review but I hope I haven’t given anything major away. I am focusing more on how this book compliments and ties into the series.

Let me start out by saying that I was both thrilled and shocked to discover that this book was going to focus on the exploits of a young Walter Bishop, William Bell and Nina Sharp rather than our core Fringe team of the series in Olivia Dunham, Peter Bishop and an older Walter Bishop. Christa Faust has added an amazing amount of depth and insight into three magnificent characters whom we would not get much more information about otherwise. Her young and enthusiastic Walter is fascinating and heart breaking. Walter is not the man that he becomes yet; he is an inquisitive mind, unmarred by unethical experiments or driven by the all-consuming need to save his child despite the cost. Of course there are a lot of Waterisms used to tie this version of Water to the future incarnation but this Walter is sensitive, engaging and highly sympathetic. William Bell oozes both charisma and ambition and his relationships with Walter and Nina are explored in detail in the novel. The influence that Bell has on Walter is clear here, as are the connections that lead both characters to their decisions in the future. Bell's relationship with Nina is particularly interesting as it centres on ambition and success; something that I think Nina comes to regret in the future. Nina herself is stunningly characterised by Faust, giving us as readers all the gusto of a woman who goes on to lead Massive Dynamic and become integral to the investigation of fringe science and the development of new technologies. She fills the hole left by Fringe's strong female lead Olivia Dunham in the show, something that has been a major attracting force for the series. This is important as it keeps the general structure and feel of the show indicating that this is perhaps the original Fringe team.

The story itself is a typical murder mystery, crime-solving thriller with a science fiction twist; a man is killing innocent people and our heroes have to stop him! But he's also from another universe, emits gamma radiation and the team require a complex hallucinogenic drug and mind syncing capabilities. The pace is fantastic as we follow the murders of the Zodiac Killer, uncover clues and become increasingly anxious in step with Walter and his companions.

If anything, what The Zodiac Paradox suffers from is the sheer length of a book compared with an episode of television. Things don't end where they feel like they naturally should when the reader is used to the format of episodic television. Walter and Bell gradually learn of the Zodiac Killer's existence and his relationship to them, meet up with Nina and stop a bus full of senior citizens from being murdered and though this is where the story would traditionally end, the book continues on to investigate how to send the killer back to his world and how to avoid the FBI agents who are pursuing the Zodiac Killer to use him as a weapon. It also explores the fringe science behind how the Zodiac Killer entered our world and where this will take Bell and Walter in the future, which is integral to the Fringe series plot. It is all immensely enjoyable if you are a Fringe fan and want the information as it links to the broader Fringe universe and story, rather than the self-contained novel. I think this is what Faust and Titan are hoping to achieve with this series and I think it works. Fringe as a television show was bold enough to not take casual viewers along for the ride; it strived to be a completely serialised show that could not be understood simply by picking up mid-season. You had to start from the beginning and I think this notion is carried on in these books.

The Zodiac Killer himself is terrifying. Faust does an incredible job of making him believable and menacing and showing just how out of their depth our heroes are when they initially go up against these sorts of Fringe cases. Allan Mather's motivation for killing is not part of the fringe science involved in the story. The experiments that Walter and Bell are conducting do not account for his behaviour and this is important. Fringe is exploring the bounds of how fringe science influences behaviours already present in human beings, not necessarily what causes the predisposition to begin with. This again mirrors the television series episodes; half FBI case and half fringe science.

Before reading the book I did not know that the Zodiac Killer was based almost absolutely on a real series of unsolved murders in the US. Faust has included some intricate details of the original murders and woven her story around real world events. I cannot describe what reading the book would be like if I had known that the events were real but I think it’s an interesting decision to completely tie our world to the prime universe in Fringe.

The best part of this new book series is that it's true to Fringe the television show in that all three books contribute to the overall plot arc and its mythology. Everything is included for a reason. The Zodiac Paradox indicates the origin of many of the most important aspects of the Fringe television show and world. This is Walter's first significant moment at Reiden Lake; the lake that becomes pivotal in his and Peter's future. This is the trial that results in the development of Cortexiphan; the drug that Walter and Bell go on to use to experiment on children and to further develop the shared experiences, telekinetic abilities and telepathy explored in this novel. This is the drug used on our future hero Olivia Dunham and that develops her future importance. This is also Walter and Bell's first experience with an alternate universe, which becomes critical to the show in later seasons and to the ultimate functionality of our universe and fringe science.

The events of the novel also set all of these major founding characters on a critical path that leads to the formation of the Fringe team and the surrounding events with Peter, Olivia, September and the Alternate Universe. Walter sees his son Peter die and his inability to save the boy. This of course, lingers in his mind for years to come and echoes Bell's sentiment at the time that Walter can change the future and save Peter as surely as he changed the outcome of the bus massacre in the novel. This makes Walter determined to save any Peter at any cost in the future and results in the damage of the Alternate Universe. I know there have been some fans that don’t like this development and believe it changes Walter’s motivation from a loving father driven wild to some sort of predestined decision but I disagree. There is a lot about pre-destiny in Fringe as a show and this adds to the intensity of Walter’s decisions in the future.

Nina and Bell share a very intimate experience and not only learn more about themselves and their potential, but also that they can only become successful together. The driving ambition that Bell and Nina share means that Bell has a genius to support his efforts unquestioningly in the future, resulting in the potential loss of both our Universe and the Alternate Universe. This is something that Nina herself regrets in the future, even though she actually falls in love with Bell. She, like Walter, is manipulated and swayed by Bell throughout the formation of Massive Dynamic, the various fringe experiments and Bell's ultimate end goal. Bell himself is at least portrayed in this novel as an ambitious and charismatic man who becomes an egomaniac as a result of the experiences shared in this story. He is the one that keeps the Cortexiphan formula, with Nina's blessing, and no doubt we will see in Christa Faust's next offering, The Burning Man, that the duo will influence Walter heavily in the ultimate experiments with the drug.

Flashes forward during the events of the novel indicate Walter’s future with Olivia and Peter and also afford us the first written introduction to the Observers, who come to be a huge part of the Fringe world in the show. It will be interesting to see what other things Faust will include in her coming books to complete the trilogy.

All up this is an exciting book for Fringe fans, packed with new information and new character development for the show we love so much! Definitely worth reading.

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