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Book Reviews   |    
The Babel Effect
Reviewed by Alan D. Schmetzer, M.D.
Psychiatric Services 2003; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.54.12.1668
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by Daniel Hecht; New York, Crown Publishers, 2001, 438 pages, $23

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This is Mr. Hecht's second novel. A professional musician, Hecht spent three years, he tells his readers, in research on the basic science that forms the backdrop to this novel. You may find an occasional error if you yourself are an active researcher in one of the scientific or mathematical fields discussed in this book. However, such errors are few and probably will not distract most readers from the story's main themes.

Like any good novel, The Babel Effect has multiple layers. It is part mystery, part psychological thriller, part near-future speculative fiction, and part love story. The hero and heroine are husband-and-wife research psychologists. They come from very different backgrounds, and their marriage is interracial, which lends some additional tension to the plot. They lead a multidisciplinary team specializing in the solution of complex technical problems. The background events are very timely, relating well to recent events.

As the book opens, the team is just completing work on a computer simulation designed to predict the pattern of disease contagion. They are then commissioned to find the cause of human violence. They begin their search by interviewing and testing imprisoned serial killers but soon branch into other areas, such as genetics, the effects of drugs on behavior, and military research. The main story takes off at this point, and the intensity of the book builds nicely, with much plot-related psychological conflict for the main characters.

The title comes, of course, from the story of the tower of Babel. The author ties this reference together with increasing violence somewhat obliquely, although he does show a connection by implication. It would be nice if some of the studies and tests discussed in the book's subplots formed more of a basis for the ultimate denouement, but like many fictional detectives, our hero comes to his conclusions at the last minute through a combination of luck and persistence more than through science, and in some ways brawn still triumphs over brains. But at least the protagonist's ability as a brilliant synthesist ultimately allows him to put the disparate clues together.

The author sets the stage for multiple intellectual speculations in a lively and compelling manner. What is a person anyway? A group of genes, a collection of neurotransmitters, a set of environmental experiences? What do our various cultural histories mean? Is faith meaningful in a world of science and technology? How and why does altruism exist?

Several of the background research papers cited are real, which adds to the sense of credibility that this book conveys. Readers in the fields of psychology and medicine should find this book very interesting, and almost anyone would enjoy some aspects of this work of fiction.

Dr. Schmetzer is professor of psychiatry at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis.




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