With some pretty serious finality, the last episode of the ratings-challenged "Fringe" effectively sewed up any dangling plot threads for Peter, Walter, and Olivia. It was the kind of finale that was satisfying to fans, inasmuch as it closed the loop on many of the show's mysteries, but poses a problem for anyone who wants to come along and do anything with these characters.
And that's how we end up with "Fringe: The Zodiac Paradox," the first of three prequel novels from publisher Titan Books this year, spotlighting the trio at the heart of the series. And writer Christa Faust, in constructing a tale about the origins of Cortexiphan delivers a clunky early adventure featuring Walter Bishop and future Massive Dynamics founder William Bell (and Nina Sharpe, too), as the action moves to the West Coast bringing the trio up against the Bay Area serial killer whose atomic fists and murderous appetites threaten all of San Francisco.
While the story gives us the rough beginnings of the mind-altering drug that will one day create human Fringe events out of Olivia and the other Florida test subjects Bell and Bishop subjected to it, it's also an awkward period piece that brings Nina into the fold while providing Walter with a bizarre flash forward that actually plays havoc with some of the logic and continuity of "Fringe" proper.
Let's get this out of the day: the dimension-hopping murderer--Allan--is a "Fringe"-worthy concept, displaced from his own universe thanks to Walter and Bell's experimentation with a new hallucinogen, which irrevocably alters the the killer's body, making him a radioactive monster as well as the man who would become notorious for taunting the police and newspapers with his Bay Area killing spree. All of the pieces fit, even if Allan feels too thinly-sketched, a caricature of what our impressions of the Zodiac Killer might be without an actual human being at the core. Still, he makes a decent enough menace for Walter, Bell, and Nina who desperately scramble to stop his next murderous act.
It's when Faust tries to tie in too many elements from the series while giving us a craven and weak version of Bell that seems unrecognizable as someone Walter would trust for years, while our favorite cuddly mad scientist never quite jibes with the one who would later experiment on children in order to breach the walls between dimensions. It's not as though Faust has a poor grasp on either character: it's just that they seem out of sequence: Walter feels like post brain-bits extraction Walter while Bell is clearly patterned after the one who would later betray his friends and attempt to annihilate two universes to keep himself alive.
Worse is the way that the book crams in a pair of future elements from the series in such an ungainly way. The first, is small enough and was expected, injecting the Observers into the final chapter just to remind us that they've played a part in Walter's life for years. I get the instinct, even if it adds nothing that we didn't already know.
The most egregious addition, though, is a vision Walter succumbs to where he sees young Peter dying (the key event that leads Walter to pierce the dimensions to save Walter-nate's Peter, driving the two dimensions into conflict). It's a manipulative, underdeveloped addition that changes the context of Walter's future: he's now not just a loving father driven to tragic action because of his child's death; no, he's destined to do so thanks to the contortions of the plot here, something I hoped would have been conveniently wiped from his memory by the Observers by the final page.
Faust's "Zodiac Paradox" adds an interesting killer to the "Fringe" canon, but sadly presents a glaring continuity and character mess for the series that follows the events within.
"Fringe: The Zodiac Paradox" is available now from Titan Books. We have an exclusive excerpt from the novel for you to check out as well.