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Improbable    by Adam Fawer order for
by Adam Fawer
Order:  USA  Can
William Morrow, 2005 (2005)

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

David Caine's gambling addiction, coupled with a recent onset of seizures (temporal lobe epilepsy) lead him into a dangerous indebtedness to a Russian mobster. David is a grad student in statistics and probability theory, who is capable of calculating 'the odds of nearly anything' in his head. Drugs don't help with the seizures that are degrading his life in many ways. David's schizophrenic twin brother Jasper hears voices. When David begins to hear them too, he fears that he's slipped into a delusional world. Subsequent events do nothing to discourage that belief.

The novel also stars a femme fatale, a striking CIA assassin named Nava Vaner, whose expertise in murder and mayhem is impressive and scary. Nava supplements her income by selling U.S. secrets to groups like the Israeli Mossad and (her latest customers) the Koreans. She gets in trouble with the latter for an incomplete delivery. Before she can fix matters, she's seconded to a secretive government organization, Science and Technology Research (STR), headed by ruthless, shadowy Dr. James Forsythe. Filling out the quota of evil scientists in the tale is Dr. Tversky who's busy altering the brain chemistry of his adoring (but not very clever) grad student, Julia. This illegal experimentation runs the risk of inducing schizophrenia. STR is keeping tabs on Tversky's research. When Tversky finds out about David, he decides that he needs him as a subject, and Forsythe uses the full power of his government connections (including Nava) to help with the acquisition.

At this point the story gets exciting, with chase and evasion scenes reminiscent of those in Minority Report, when precognition allowed the good guys to evade capture. David sees possible futures. He's able to influence what will happen, and to plan ahead for future events. He and his opponents come to believe that David is Laplace's Demon, 'an all-knowing intelligence that can predict the future.' Eventually, a common interest in survival brings David and Nava together. They use his predictive abilities and her deadly talents to fight off waves of government agents operating below official radar. The violence and corpses multiply as the plot moves towards its end game, so much that the reader wonders how the author can possibly write his hero out of this mess. As the story ends, David discovers that he's not as unique as he thought he was.

Improbable is an unusual speculative fiction thriller, interleaved with popular science. Though the characterization is somewhat trite (particularly the mad scientists), the plotting of future prediction into the chase and evasion scenes make up for it. If you're interested in probability theory and enjoy a fast-moving (if at times highly improbable) plot, then read this one.

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