A Vision of Fire is the debut novel of Gillian Anderson of X-Files fame, and columnist and freelance writer Jeff Rovin. It tells a fascinating tale of science and the unexplainable, a story that might have found itself in the X-Files. Deeply engaging, with excellent pacing, use of suspense and character-building, A Vision of Fire is a fantastic debut for Ms. Anderson, and a feather in the more experienced cap of Jeff Rovin. Highly recommended, and great all around.
Renowned child psychologist Caitlin O’Hara is a single mom trying to juggle her job, her son, and a lacklustre dating life. Her world is suddenly upturned when Maanik, the daughter of India’s ambassador to the United Nations, starts speaking in tongues and having violent visions. Caitlin is sure that her fits have something to do with the recent assassination attempt on her father—a shooting that has escalated nuclear tensions between India and Pakistan to dangerous levels—but when teenagers around the world start having similar outbursts, Caitlin begins to think that there’s a more sinister force at work.
In Haiti, a student claws at her throat, drowning on dry land. In Iran, a boy suddenly and inexplicably sets himself on fire. Animals, too, are acting irrationally, from rats in New York City to birds in South America to ordinary house pets. With Asia on the cusp of nuclear war, Caitlin must race across the globe to uncover the mystical links among these seemingly unrelated incidents in order to save her patient—and perhaps the world.
I’ll start by just getting this out of the way. I couldn’t help but feel, throughout the entirety of this novel, that Gillian Anderson had very carefully, artfully, and deliberately written Caitlin so that she could play her in a movie. She is an intellectual, independent, strong-willed scientist who even has a redhead’s last name. Not that this is a problem, I think she’d be a perfect fit for the role should it ever be made into a film, but it sort of niggled at me throughout that this was somehow done on purpose. My only other criticism is a common one of contemporary writing. It gets to rear its ugly head here as well: overuse of very era-specific terms where they didn’t need to be. While I understand the gains in verisimilitude and identifiability when you make reference to things which are in the current zeitgeist in your fiction, it is a very double edged sword. In even ten years, will anybody reading this be familiar with Skype, Twitter, and Facebook? They may still know what they are, like even people who’ve never owned or heard one likely know what an 8-track and a record player are, but it loses the gains of relatability shockingly quickly. Myspace was founded 11 years ago, but only made it 5 years before being overtaken by Facebook. Facebook is in year 6 of being top dog, but who is to say how long that will last? It’s a tough call to make, but I generally feel better about contemporary SFF if nothing in it ought to have a real-life (™) beside it.
Criticisms aside, this was a fantastic piece of fiction. I’m a sucker for sceptics handling exposure to the otherwise unexplainable with a certain degree of sangfroid, and Anderson/Rovin deliver with O’Hara. Without wanting to spoil any of the plot points, to a very rational psychologist, things get pretty weird pretty quickly in A Vision of Fire. It all gets handled without resorting to either a lazy out of automatic acceptance of what’s going on without question, or a more Scully-esque constant denial in the face of contrary evidence. It made O’Hara seem a lot more real. The, shall we say, scientifically improbable content itself was also very well put together. There comes a point where your characters have no choice but to suspend disbelief and accept what is right in front of them, and it takes a good deal of skill to make your readers equally as willing at the same time. Even if you take the general concept that the setting here is the ‘real’ world which we inhabit, the segue into ‘but this weird thing is real’ is very smooth and works quite well.
The characterizations of the secondary cast were also very well done. I could really sympathize with Ganak and Hansa Pawar, the ambassador and his wife, as they worry over their daughter Maanik. Caitlin’s friend at the embassy, Ben, made a great confidante and helped to tie the plot together as a bit of a go-between. The general pacing and flow of the narrative was also quite well done. We broke away from the more significant plot developments just often enough that it toned back from being an outright thriller, but not so much that it lost any of the oomf of those scenes when they happened. A few scenes, such as the ‘student drowning on dry land’ mentioned in the publisher’s blurb, were downright chilling. More great scenes that would convert well to the screen.
Altogether, A Vision of Fire was an enjoyable read, and a great debut from Anderson. Obviously with most co-written novels, I don’t really know how much was her and how much was Jeff Rovin, but perhaps unfortunately for Mr. Rovin, I suspect that between the star-power of Anderson’s name, and the degree to which the protagonist resembles her, this will likely be talked about by most people as “The novel that Scully wrote.” Obvious and interesting sequel potential, and some great set pieces that would make excellent film or even perhaps a miniseries, I’m definitely looking forward to what comes next for Caitlin O’Hara.
Dan received an advanced copy of A Vision of Fire from Simon & Schuster via NetGalley.