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Fire of the Dark Triad (SF) - Asya Semenovich ***

Classic science fiction from the 1950s, such as the work of Isaac Asimov, is rightly criticised these days for lacking characterisation, a tendency to tell rather than show, and an absence of meaningful female characters, even if the ideas were often excellent and the action scenes could be quite engaging. In many ways, this novel takes us back to those flawed classics of the genre.

The problem is worst at the start. The first twenty pages or so takes us from prehistory to the future in such a skimpy way that it is tedious to read. This is the telliest opening I have ever seen in a published piece of fiction. It's often little more than a summary, with a key concept for the book covered in little more than a page. Here we discover  that gateways to parallel universes are discovered where variants of Earth aren't occupied by intelligent life, giving a limitless opportunity for colonies to be set up and develop in their own way, eventually becoming a threat the the Earth.

The other central concept, which the whole storyline rests on, is the 'dark triad' of the title. These are the attributes of narcissism, psychopathy and machiavellianism. It's apparently a genuine term from psychology (though I'm not sure why it's necessary, in the sense that I've never heard descriptions of psychopaths who don't have the other two traits). I admit my knowledge of psychopathy is limited to Jon Ronson's brilliant book The Psychopath Test, but the 'triad' concept does feel a little like someone in the psychology world just looking for an excuse to publish popular psychology books.

In Fire of the Dark Triad, though, Asya Semenovich makes a link that I've never seen, in suggesting that creativity and innovation are primarily the results of being a 'dark triad' person - i.e. a psychopath. This seems distinctly contrary to reality - I could believe it more from other psychological traits, but not psychopathy. However, the whole book rests on this premise. The future Earth, it seems, in breeding and editing out psychopathic tendencies, has become unable to be creative and needs to bring in dark triad people from the parallel Earth colonies to thrive and develop.

The book is by far at its best in the action sections, featuring an Earth agent called Nick (a dark triad person himself, though Earth-born) whose job is to retrieve these useful psychopaths, but who is faced with a huge personal dilemma. This takes up the majority of the rest of the book, and worked well enough to keep me reading, though Nick's technology is so advanced compared to that of the colonies that his AI assistant could sometimes verge on being a deus ex machina.

There was one big plot hole - Nick somehow went from being totally broke to hiring a private island - and there's one oddity in that the main characters are mostly male, with the female MCs defined by their relationship to men, particularly strange in a novel by a female author when most modern male SF authors don't fall into this trap. Also, like the classics, the characters were fairly two-dimensional and those who were supposedly strong on dark triad characteristics seemed no more malevolent and self-centred than anyone else in the book. There's also a distinctly misleading plug on the cover 'As featured in the exciting new film Married to Math', as this refers to the author: it's not saying that this book has been made into a movie.

It was enough to get me to the end, though. A fair holiday read, but nowhere near the best that modern science fiction can offer.



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Review by Brian Clegg


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