Monday, September 03, 2007

The Methuselah Enzyme by Fred Mustard Stewart

Rating - 2: not worth reading (skip it)

The writing is pretty good, taking any piece in isolation, but the book gets a 2 because of spotty pacing, over-telegraphing its big surprises, and a plot hole that invalidates the entire central conflict. Also, a recurring theme has not aged well.

Dr. Mentius may have the key, a new anti-aging treatment that literally turns back the biological clock. Three patients at his secluded rejuvenation resort have the chance to regain their youth and keep it indefinitely. There is, of course, something strange about this experimental technique, and how everyone else at the resort fits into the picture in this low-simmering novel of suspense.

The book has a similar feel to The Stepford Wives. Both are lightly sci-fi thrillers with a female protagonist who is gradually being let in on the game while alternately following her suspicions and trying to rationalize them away. Stepford wins for packing that into about one hundred fewer pages and not having the obvious device of a secluded manor. The Methuselah Enzyme also fails to build as much suspense; beyond having a more obvious threat, the threat seems more minor because it lands almost no blows throughout the book. If you are half-way through the story and the greatest hardship is that a medical procedure ran long, the stakes seem rather low.

The pacing on the menace is slow. It lingers without building. You can see the plot following a formula, but it is not following it well. The page count to each step in the process feels off. It would have edited well to a film, joining Mr. Stewart's other books there, but no film was made.

I have already described the threat as obvious and over-telegraphed. That is not entirely fair, since I did not see all the twists coming, but the major points are apparent well before they are revealed. The cover says, "Do not reveal the shock ending!" but the shock is almost explicitly stated three or more times in advance. The cry of "foreshadowing!" echoes around the corner well before the plot twists. Also, maybe medical ethics in the 1970s were not what they are today, but everyone should have had warning bells during the exposition. Where is the IRB on this? And being subjected to medical tests without consent did not get real suspicions going anyway? And no one looked back to the exposition after the characters' prior relationships were noticed?

That is leaking into plot holes for me, but hey, most of us do not live as if we were characters in a thriller. I can accept characters' chasing a red herring or being alternately too suspicious and not suspicious enough. The gaping hole is that the entire premise of the central conflict is flawed. Highlight the three whited-out words here to solve the entire problem: (spoiler) fetal pineal glands (/spoiler). You at least need to explain why the obvious solution would not work, especially when you have already decided to leap that lesser ethical hurdle.

Beyond the events of the plot, the philosophical conflict has not aged well. No one says, "Don't trust anyone over 30," anymore. Threats that sound like genocide of the youth are not plausible. Romeo and Juliet has a much more lasting take on inter-generational conflict.

Incidentally, the science in the book has aged relatively well. The details are wrong, of course, but the principle is right. The enzyme he wants is telomerase, or at least that is our best current candidate. The references to fetuses and cancer in the book excited me with the possibility that he had inadvertently predicted science a few decades ahead, but neither of those panned out. The back cover says, "Now The Methuselah Enzyme is fiction! In five years it'll be fact!" More than thirty years later, we think we might be within thirty years of pulling it off.

Amazon link (out of print)

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