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Spiral
Koji Suzuki
Vertical, Inc.
281 pages

Thursday, June 24, 2004
Copyright © Las Vegas Mercury

Books: Spiral by Koji Suzuki

The downward viral

By John Ziebell

In the real world, true fear is generated less by masked sociopaths wielding axes or chainsaws or even switchblade fingernails than by dangerous anomalies that we can't understand--nasty, fatal occurrences that defy explanation. A couple millennia ago, if things were going badly, somebody in the neighborhood would sacrifice a goat or an ox and hope for favor from the gods; these days, at least theoretically, we know better, and turn to science for our answers. But if science can't allay our fears, well...

This is the tenet that Japanese author Koji Suzuki has cashed in on. The novels in his horror trilogy--Ring, Spiral, and Loop--have all been bestsellers in the original, and have generated four movies so far. His work is being released in the U.S. by Vertical, Inc., a press that specializes in publishing cutting-edge contemporary fiction from Japan. Suzuki is called the Stephen King of his country, but that's not really accurate; King isn't nearly as adept at creating complex characters, explaining scientific principles or writing the kind of dialogue that might actually be spoken by humans.

"You've lost weight, Ryuji," Mitsuo Ando, a Tokyo coroner, comments as he completes the autopsy of a medical school classmate--just before things get really weird.

Ando is a man with issues, the most significant being an ongoing and overwhelming sense of grief over the death of his son, for which his ex-wife still holds him responsible. Ando has been able to lose himself only in work, at least until he opens up his deceased friend. The so-called "natural" death is anything but, as it turns out; Ryuji died of a heart attack apparently brought on by something resembling smallpox--a disease supposedly long since eradicated.

"Viruses are a strange form of life," we are reminded. "They lack the power to reproduce on their own."

Viruses can hitchhike, however, and can also alter themselves to improve their survival quotient. What Ando and his colleagues have discovered is actually a super-virus, a smallpox variant that incorporates human genetic material and mutates, improving itself as it kills. But the virus in question has a very small pool of victims; it's not behaving the way it should, rampaging through a largely defenseless population. This is what has Ando puzzled when Ryuji's girlfriend, a philosophy student at the university, disappears. Perhaps not surprisingly, like the scientific inquiry, the disappearance adds another link to what is becoming a chain of unanswerable questions. And what's scarier than a virus, anyway?

It's the list of virus victims that connects this story to Ring, but you don't need a working knowledge of the previous book to understand this one; there's enough backstory about the preceding events made available by the questions of a live newspaper reporter and the computer files of a comatose one. You don't even have to start out accepting the premise that a videotape could record vengeful psychic emanations from the undiscovered body of a rape/murder victim and kill anyone who views it in exactly one week--though in a genre that demands the suspension of a lot of disbelief, it's not an excessive notion.

What's so persuasive about Spiral is that it's anchored to a world we trust to answer our most important questions, people who have ultimate credibility. These aren't seniors on spring break, but scientists--physicians, genetic researchers, toxicologists. We're given a wealth of information on biochemistry and forensic medicine, especially in the clinical pathology area--enough to be interesting, but never so much that it becomes insufferable. And in addition to a gloss on viruses, there's a lot of detail on subjects as diverse as publishing, the fundamentals of cryptography and Japan itself. It's an engaging tale and deeply human as well, as sophisticated as the genre gets.


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