Darnton's 'Mind Catcher': fast-paced brain geekery


Mind Catcher, by John Darnton. Dutton Books. 387 pages. $25.95.

For readers who prefer to hit the ground running and never look back, John Darnton has delivered a medical sci-fi thriller which, despite its predictability, hurtles along like an ambulance, hightailing it nimbly around every sharp corner of technical knowledge and scientific research.

Darnton's chosen racecourse in Mind Catcher is the uncharted nexus of super computers and the human consciousness. What might happen, for example, if someday a damaged brain could let a computer take over some of the workload? Or vice versa: a leap of the brain's thoughts and knowledge into the terra incognita of hyperlinks and cybercom. Throw in a few forays into stem cell research and neurosurgery, and you've completed the territory.

From the moment the book's story lines begin to develop -- a mildly mad scientist experimenting on the brains of his forgotten mental patients, an ego-driven neurosurgeon seeking his next professional conquest, and a bereaved single dad wondering who can mend his comatose son's horrendous head injury -- it is fairly easy to foresee how they'll intersect, and the problems and perils that will result. It is the journey to those destinations that provide the gasps and squeals.

Mind Catcher is Darnton's third novel, following Neanderthal and The Experiment. He doesn't like calling his books sci-fi. He prefers the label "science adventure," saying that, technically speaking, his plots never stray beyond the bounds of scientific possibility.

This might explain why he tends to bend over backward to make the case for plausibility. Darnton is not satisfied merely with persuading a reader to suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride, and the result is an occasional overdose of cutting-edge science, usually delivered via the chats and inner monologues of docs and researchers.

Such passages are often fascinating, but after a while they oddly begin to undermine rather than strengthen the case for believability. The more the author screams "This could happen!" the more the reader suspects he's crying wolf, especially when Darnton presents a Buddhalike, techno-babbling computer guru as a credible spokesman for the probability of mind-computer melding. At the point of his greatest leap, he's finessing the details with a geek.

Apart from those occasional strains, the book entertains as it informs. The characters are reasonably full and complex, even if tending toward type. The writing is businesslike and efficient. And if a reader occasionally detects a certain gnawing gracelessness in the brisk way everyone is shoved down the fast sleek corridors of the plot, at least one is never left waiting for the next key moment. They arrive like clockwork.

The pacing, in fact, is downright cinematic, as is the book's resolution. Rooting for the good guys is rewarded. The bad guys get their comeuppance. Considering the harsh realities of today's health care system, those outcomes might be Darnton's most improbable leap yet.

Dan Fesperman, a reporter for The Sun currently on leave, recently completed his second novel, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows, which will be published next year. His first book, Lie in the Dark, won a Dagger Award from the British Crime Writer's Association for the best first novel of 1999.

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