Steven-Elliot Altman,
(Ace, 2003)

I'm torn between feeling like I've gotten a bargain and feeling I've been cheated.

Deprivers could reasonably be marketed as two books in one cover, and I'm always happy to get twice the story. But when both those stories seem to be lacking crucial scenes and vital moments of conflict, it feels more like picking a misprint; a run where somehow, those two books got shuffled together with just a few crucial pages missing. And judging from the rest of Steven Elliot-Altman's writing, the loss of those pages is depriving us of some excellent storytelling.

The first half of the novel focuses on Depriver lives while their existence is still unknown. We discover the existence of Deprivers and the variations on the symptoms along with a Depriver who had no idea there were others like him. Those others have begun forming into camps: people who want to stay hidden, those who want to reveal themselves and those who want to attack and hack out a place of their own in the world. The story careens through the emergency organizing of the first two groups, and a desperate gamble by the Deprivers to define the terms of their lives by outing themselves. It's tense, and has as much of a political thriller about it as science fiction. The brief cast of characters is given a chance to introduce themselves to the reader thorough a clever use of changing first person narrative. With only half a book to occur in, this section can't help but feel like a prologue, but the characters do their best to catch the reader's attention before their brief spotlight is turned off. The first half ends at the moment the Deprivers broadcast their existence into a media frenzy, moments before all hell breaks loose.

The second half of the book begins years after that initial public discovery. A new character with a tragic past is introduced, while the formerly main characters are relegated to plot points and landmarks. The engaging first-person narrative shifts to a distancing third-person, matching the feel of the world post-exposure. Society has changed in plausible and desperate ways which are never fully explored or explained: skin contact has become a thing of the past, normals have become convinced that Sensory Deprivation Syndrome is contagious, and everyone wears gloves whenever possible. The ensemble cast of the first novelette is replaced by a grim, lone vigilante with loose ties to that first group. A victim of the bigoted violence turned towards Deprivers, he enters the organization meant to control them. This section is full of gaps within itself, as Alex Crowley turns the story into a commando adventure and a final defiant attempt to render SDS powerless.

Deprivers has drama to spare and a fair shot of action. But it feels as though the moments of greatest drama are happening offstage, making for a somewhat frustrating read. It ends on another almost-climax, with a very convenient resolution to the epidemic and its social problems just about to become widespread. It's an entertaining series of scenes, but those scenes seem intent to skip around crucial matters made more important by their absence. Worse, the two halves of the book really don't seem to have anything to do with each other. Brief cameos from the initial cast of the book still don't create a great attachment to Alex Crowley, who for all his tragic heroism ends up feeling more like a comic book template character than the believable, SDS affected, very human characters we first meet. A compelling tease, Deprivers is all the more frustrating because every scene that does get explored feels so driven, begging the "What next?" response. Deprivers is a good story, and I hope someday to see a director's cut with the missing second act.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 27 March 2004

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