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Dave Kalstein. Thomas Dunne/St. Martinšs Press. $23.95
(336p.) ISBN: 0312340966
(Dec 2005)

book coverThe premise of Prodigy is promising: Giving children in grades one through twelve individualized daily doses of mind and body enhancing super-drugs and providing them with rigorously excellent instruction, the Stansbury School produces super-achieving adults. By 2036 Stansbury's "specimens", as they are called, routinely run major corporations, are elected to high office, star as premiere athletes, produce medical miracles, and innovate great inventions. Debut author Kalstein merges this idea with a thriller plot, superficial sci-fi, mad science horror, and teen fiction tropes and comes up with a novel that has its moments but doesn't quite measure up to "above average".

Kalstein writes colorful cinematic scenes that pull the reader along, but the novel is so frustratingly flawed in numerous ways this knack alone is not enough. I won't enumerate the problems, but one is the plot's pivot point -- the US Congress is preparing to authorize a trillion dollars a year subsidy to Stansbury. Why does the school need the money or want the scrutiny and governmental interference that will surely be attached? Not only do they rake in $500,000 per specimen in annual tuition (with only 120 of its 4000 students receiving scholarships), Stansbury runs its own laboratories (the FDA is approving its antidote for cancer, the AIDS vaccine came back in 2019). Wouldn't its patents and partial ownership in numerous projects -- as well as ultra-savvy investment counseling by its alumni advisors, not to mention their grateful donations, be worth more than the school could use? (Example: in current reality, Harvard's endowment is $22 billion, Yale's is around $13 billion.) That plot makes no sense, and neither does its counterplot. While the politicos are preparing to pass the bill, a series of Stansbury alums are being murdered and William Winston Cooley, the current senior class bad boy/antihero, gets framed for the killings. In order to avoid a scandal (and lose the government grant) golden-boy valedictorian, Thomas Oliver Goldsmith is allowed to investigate. Not surprisingly both specimens are only pawns in a larger game.

The thriller aspect spirals out of control into more silliness. The style of the teen fiction and the teens themselves are remarkably retro-1980s. The science of the fiction is superficial and often laughable ("donut flavored laser syringes") As for the horror angle -- Kalstein seems to forget, over and over, just what the Bad Thing is. The graduate specimens are supposedly zombies lacking imagination and individualism -- yet they have enough of both invent, create, and solve beyond human levels and the book itself is about how very human they are. American education is not working -- yet we are never given a glimpse of what non-Stansbury education is like nor any idea that in three decades anyone else has used any Stansburian methods. Eugenics is bad -- wait a minute, this is drug enhancement that could be used on anyone, not genetic manipulation. The need to succeed at all costs is evil -- yet we are given example after example of specimens who could not succeed once out in the world. The elite should not rule -- hey, give me the best and brightest over what we have these days and Kalstein's future days don't look any different. Despite all, Kalstein's talent and imagination are obvious and, given the chance and some editorial aid, he might yet become a novelist. -- Paula Guran (Originally published in Cemetery Dance #54, Spring 2006)