Sunday 23 November 2008

Michael Stephen Fuchs: The Manuscript (2006)

Published: Macmillan New Writing, 2006

Sir Richard Burton was one of the most interesting Victorians - best known as a linguist and explorer, he translated the Arabian Nights into English and made the pilgrimage to Mecca forbidden to the infidel in disguise as an Arab, and co-led the expedition which discovered the source of the Nile. He is also well known to science fiction fans as the main character of Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series. Here, though, he appears as the author of "The Manuscript", a description of a trip he took into the Andes, discovering a remote tribe who possessed the answers to life's questions. Apparently lost when Burton's widow burnt his papers after his death, rumours suggest that The Manuscript is secretly hidden on an Internet server.

So far, so Da Vinci Code. A similar mixture of absurd and unlikely conspiracy theory and treasure hunt with a spiritual secret to be found. This is mixed in with the Internet thriller, along the lines of Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, and is written by someone who knows what he's talking about. Fuchs also thankfully writes in a far less clunky style than Dan Brown, who for this reader breaks the suspense every couple of paragraphs with some poorly phrased infelicity.

That is not to say that everything is wonderful in The Manuscript. The most glaring problem is the occasional lengthy and poorly integrated "info dump", notably in the early pages where Burton's biography is shoehorned in. It would help the flow of the novel if the details are revealed as characters need to know them, with a much shorter summary at this point, and the presentation would be more elegant than it is. It's excusable because Burton is made to be so important to the story (though the authorship of the Manuscript turns out to be almost irrelevant to both its contents and the treasure hunt: it's just that an origin can be fitted into Burton's already crowded life story).

Although i haven't mentioned any of the characters so far, the central figures are well enough drawn to hold the interest, if rather glamourised. These are nerds as portrayed by Hollywood, people who prefer to work out than watch Star Trek re-runs.

The Manuscript is a successful techno-thriller, even with its absurd premise. Perhaps the geekiness of the Internet content will put some people off, butt you won't need to have heard of awk, sed or perl to enjoy the story. It works: there's tension and suspense, and the rivalry between the various groups searching for the Manuscript is well handled.