[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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Typical Passage


by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1997 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

When giving readings at bookstores, I often don't read the opening of a novel; rather, I look for a typical passage that embodies the flavor and theme of the book. I find that in a book superstore, where the acoustics are usually quite lousy, a six- or seven-minute reading is ideal. This is the passage I often read from Frameshift.

       Pierre Tardivel sat in his lab, looking at his watch. His assistant, Shari Cohen, had said she might be late getting back from lunch, but it was now 14:45, and a three-hour lunch seemed excessive even by West Coast standards. Perhaps he'd been crazy hiring someone who was just about to get married. She'd have a million things to do before the wedding, after all, and . . .

       The door to the lab opened, and Shari walked in. Her eyes were bloodshot and although she'd obviously taken a moment to attempt to fix her makeup, she'd clearly been crying a lot.

       "Shari!" said Pierre, rising to his feet and moving over to her. "What's wrong?"

       She glanced at Pierre, her lower lip trembling. Pierre couldn't remember the last time he'd seen someone look so sad. Her voice was low and quavering. "Howard and I broke up." Tears were welling again at the corners of her eyes.

       "Oh, Shari," said Pierre. "I'm so sorry." He hadn't known her that long and wasn't sure if he should pry — and yet, she probably needed somebody to talk to. Everything had been fine before she left for lunch; Pierre's might very well be the only friendly face she'd seen since whatever had happened.

       "Did you — did you have a fight?"

       Tears rolled slowly down Shari's cheeks. She shook her head.

       Pierre was at a loss. He thought about drawing her close to him, trying to comfort her, but he was her employer — he couldn't do that. Finally he settled on, "It must hurt."

       She nodded almost imperceptibly. Pierre led her over to a lab stool. She sat on it, placing her hands in her lap. Pierre noticed the engagement ring was gone. "Everything was going so well," she said, her voice full of anguish. She was quiet for a long time. Again, Pierre thought about reaching out to her — a hand on her shoulder, say. He hated to see anyone in such pain. "But — but my parents came over from Poland after World War II, and Howard's parents are from the Balkans."

       Pierre looked at her, not understanding.

       "Don't you see?" she said, sniffing. "We're both Ashkenazi."

       Pierre lifted his shoulders slightly, helpless.

       "Eastern European Jews," said Shari. "We had to go for counseling."

       Pierre didn't really know much about Judaism, although there were lots of English-speaking Jews in Montreal. "Yes?"

       "For Tay-Sachs," said Shari, sounding almost angry that it had to be spelled out.

       "Oh," said Pierre, very softly, understanding at last. Tay-Sachs was a genetic disease that resulted in a failure to produce the enzyme hexosaminidase-A, which, in turn, caused a fatty substance to accumulate in the nerve cells of the brain. Unlike Huntington's, Tay-Sachs manifested itself in infancy, causing blindness, dementia, convulsions, extensive paralysis, and death — usually by the age of four. It was almost exclusively found among Jews of Eastern European extraction. Four percent of American Jews descended from there carried the gene — but, again unlike Huntington's, the Tay-Sachs gene was recessive, meaning a child had to receive genes from both parents to get the disease. If both the father and the mother carried the gene, any child of theirs had a 25-percent chance of having Tay-Sachs.

       Still — maybe Shari had misunderstood. Yes, she was a genetics student, but . . . "So you both have the gene?" asked Pierre, gently.

       Shari nodded and wiped her cheeks. "I had no idea that I carried it. But Howard — he suspected he carried the gene, and never said a word to me." She sounded bitter. "His sister discovered she had it when she got married, but it was okay, because her fiancé didn't have it. But Howard knew that since his sister had it, he himself had to have a 50-percent chance of being a carrier — and he never told me." She looked briefly at Pierre, then dropped her gaze down to the floor. "You shouldn't keep secrets from someone you love."

       Pierre thought about himself and Molly, but said nothing. There was quiet between them for perhaps half a minute.

       "Still," said Pierre at last, "there are options. Amniocentesis can determine if a fetus has received two Tay-Sachs genes. If you found that it had, you could have an . . ." Pierre couldn't quite bring himself to say "abortion" out loud.

       But Shari simply nodded. "I know." She sniffed a few times. She was quiet for a moment, as if considering whether to go on. "But I've got endometriosis; my gynecologist warned me years ago that I'm going to have a very hard time conceiving. I told Howard that when we got serious. I really, really want to have children, but it's going to be an uphill battle, and . . ."

       Pierre nodded. And there was no way she could afford to have pregnancies terminated.

       "I'm so sorry, Shari, but . . ." He paused, not sure if it was his place to say anything more.

       She looked at him, her face a question.

       "You could adopt," said Pierre. "It's not so bad. I was raised by someone who wasn't my biological father."

       Shari blew her nose, but then laughed a cold laugh. "You're not Jewish." It was a statement, not a question.

       Pierre shook his head.

       She exhaled noisily, as if daunted by the prospect of trying to explain so much. Finally, she said, "Six million Jews were killed during World War II — including most of my parents' relatives. Ever since I was a little girl, I've been brought up to believe that I've got to have children of my own, that I have to do my part to help restore my people." She looked away. "You don't understand."

       Pierre was quiet for a while. Then, at last, he said softly, "I am sorry, Shari." He did, finally, touch her shoulder. She responded at once, collapsing against his chest, and sobbed softly for a very long time.

More Good Reading

Frameshift Opening Chapters
More about Frameshift
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