[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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Frameshift Structural Analysis

by Robert J. Sawyer

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

[Rob Sawyer inside DNA] My 1997 Tor novel Frameshift has the most complex structure of any novel I've written to date. Still, most reviewers have had no trouble following it: Library Journal said the plotlines were "skillfully interwoven," producing a "highly recommended" book, and The Toronto Star — the largest-circulation newspaper in Canada — praised the "subtlety and great skill" with which the elements were combined. The syndicated review column "About Books" said, "The strands of the plot are woven masterfully, an at-least-quintuple helix; an enthralling novel." And in The Halifax Chronicle-Herald, David Pitt wrote: "Robert J. Sawyer's latest novel could be the most convoluted story of the summer, but Frameshift is not a mess. It's everything a science fiction novel should be: intelligent, challenging, and — above all — entirely plausible from start to finish."

Still, the structure did seem to go over the head of at least one reviewer, and so I'm providing here my own structural analysis of the book, prepared while I was creating the novel.

Please note that following contains MAJOR PLOT-SPOILERS: if you haven't yet read the novel, you probably shouldn't read on. (On the other hand, if you're studying Frameshift in school, you may find lots of good essay material here . . .)

Theme of the novel:

Genetic Destiny

  1. On the personal level
  2. On the species level

Literary model:

Classical Greek tragedy, in which the main character suffers peripetia (a sudden change of events or reversal of fortune) due to his or her hamartia (tragic flaw — an ingrained trait against which the character is powerless to fight). For this book on genetic destiny, obviously, the hamartia is genetic.

In creating my books, I work backwards — finding the climax, then building the structure that leads to that climax. Just as the DNA molecule does, Frameshift has two main strands intertwined leading to two climaxes that occur in close succession:

The Action Climax (concluding the personal-level genetic-destiny story): a formerly healthy young man, now severely debilitated by a genetic disorder, in hand-to-hand mortal combat with the only possible opponent against which he might be evenly matched — a very old man.

The Intellectual Climax (concluding the species-level genetic-destiny story): a family portrait of humanity, showing where it was, where it is now, and where it is going.

For the Action Climax, we need a debilitating disease that is adult-onset, and whose onset time can to some degree be predicted (to allow for race-against-time pacing). Because our model is Greek tragedy, the disease must be incurable. Huntington's disease fulfills these requirements, providing a perfect genetic hamartia for our main character.

The fight scene requires an octogenarian opponent. What questions arise when we consider a man in his eighties during the present day? Answer: what did he do when he was younger — specifically, when he was the same age as the diseased man he is fighting? That is, what would this man in his eighties have been doing in his thirties? Answer: inevitably, he would have been involved in World War II.

What sort of old man would come into conflict with a genetically diseased young man? Answer: someone who discriminates on the basis of genetics. Question: who discriminates on the basis of genetics today? Answer: insurance companies. Question: who discriminated on the basis of genetics in World War II? Answer: the Nazis. Logical conclusion: our eighty-year-old villain must have been a Nazi during World War II who is now involved in the health-insurance industry.

Follow-up questions: are there any real-life Nazis particularly associated with genetic discrimination (for which read genocide) who are still conceivably alive and at large? Answer: Yes. Ivan Marchenko (aka Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka), who was personally responsible for one out of every seven deaths in the Holocaust.

Is Marchenko still newsworthy? Answer: Yes. As recently as July 1993, another man — John Demjanjuk — who had been convicted of being Ivan had his conviction overturned because evidence had come to light proving Marchenko was somebody else resemblance to Marchenko.

For the Intellectual Climax, we need a secret locked in our DNA. It's a fact that ninety percent of human DNA apparently serves no useful purpose — the so-called junk DNA. Who would be most interested in junk DNA? Answer: someone suffering from a genetic disease the gene for which was originally dismissed as just being junk. Again, Huntington's disease fits the bill perfectly.

What secret could be locked into the junk DNA? Answer: not just our genetic past, but also our genetic future. That is, the junk DNA contains a blueprint not just of what we currently are and how we got there, but also of what we will eventually become — genetic destiny writ large. Question: what was the last big leap in human evolution — the most-recent major change coded in our DNA? Answer: the origin of speech, which research shows may have marked the transition from Neanderthal man to fully modern humans.

Question: how do we get a Neanderthal into the present day? Answer: cloning, from DNA recovered from tens of thousands of years ago. Question: would cloning someone from that DNA be considered an ethical experiment? Answer: emphatically no. Question: what group of people is best known for unethical medical experimentation? Answer: the Nazis. Logical conclusion: the Nazi hunter who mistakenly accused John Demjanjuk of being Ivan the Terrible is again on the wrong track. His research leads him toward the famous geneticist who cloned the Neanderthal.

Question: what will be the next big leap in human evolution? Presumably, it's a mental, rather than physical, leap. What sort of mental leap builds on the transition from silence to speech? Answer: the leap from speech to telepathy. Question: how do we get a telepath into the present day? Answer: accidental mutation, giving a foretaste of what's preprogrammed into our DNA.

Structural Elements

The above analysis illustrates the six main bricks from which Frameshift is built:

  1. Huntington's Diseases
  2. Insurance Corruption
  3. Nazism
  4. Junk DNA
  5. Telepathy
  6. Neanderthal Clone

Note that of these six bricks, two — Huntington's disease and Nazism — are key to supporting both climaxes. Note, too, that all six bricks are necessary to build the book. Pull any one of them out, and the rest of the structure comes tumbling down.

Specifically, if you remove the Nazism from the book, you remove the connection between the intellectual and action climaxes of the novel. You also remove the justification for the heinous insurance corruption AND the justification for the unethical medical experimentation resulting in the birth of the Neanderthal child.

If you remove the insurance corruption (or the Nazism that underpins it), you destroy the action climax altogether (as well as eliminating the external threat on the main character's life).

If you remove any one of the junk DNA, the Neanderthal child, or the telepathy, you destroy the intellectual climax altogether.

More Good Reading

More about Frameshift
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