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Frameshift Structural Analysis
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1997 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
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:
- On the personal level
- On the species level
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
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
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
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
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.
The above analysis illustrates the six main bricks from which
Frameshift is built:
- Huntington's Diseases
- Insurance Corruption
- Junk DNA
- 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
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
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
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