Blue Fire is a phenomenally ambitious multi-genre novel that puts us in the shoes of a fascinating character, Dr. John Cameron, and his even more wild life. The novel takes you from the walls of a dogmatic medical school to a clinical practice to the jungles, skies, and waters of Vietnam and into a desert environment. This is truly one heck of an adventure!
As mentioned before, this novel blends multiple genres including medical thrillers, romance, military fiction, and suspense (among others).
The thing that this novel does better than anything else is the writing. The writing is absolutely phenomenal! These are some of the most beautiful, elegant, detailed sentences we've ever seen.
How about we start with this: the motifs. There are a few motifs that keep coming up such as the titular blue fire and “the machine” or “the assembly line.”
In response to the New Years Day holiday, it is written of Cameron: “...he was against the whole mechanical, assembly line, served up at-the-stroke-of-midnight routine, and the drug-like hypnotic effect--like mob psychology or war-- that this day had upon people.”
Cameron is a rebel. When it comes to defying protocol to help a patient, it is said:
“Technically, he wasn’t supposed to write on it since his General Medicine service had ended. Technically, he didn’t give a damn.”
Cameron will not be another cog in the machine. This novel pairs the idea of human beings and machines—those who do things and make decisions based on feelings and emotions (human beings) and those who do things and make decisions based on “the book” or programming (machines). It does this in some pretty clever ways. For example, when we first meet Dr. Cameron, he is placed in multiple dilemmas based on situations with various patients such as whether to relieve their pain as a sympathetic human being or to follow protocol like cog in the machine. Later on, we see Dr. Cameron in the military during the Vietnam War facing similar dilemmas as military leaders share intimate details that bring question marks around their sanity. Should he follow HEPA and protect his patient's privacy/reputation, or should he expose them and potentially save many lives in the process?
In Cameron's personal life, should he follow his intense feelings and emotions in this extramarital affair with Julie or should he follow the ethical code and respect her marriage? As Cameron admits, “...machines don't smile.” This book is very clever in how it explores this theme. Going back to the writing itself, there are just sentences and sections that rank among the best we've seen. Here are some examples:
“'Man,' he thought out loud, and 'kind'--was any of that still left?”
“...like desert rocks hibernating under a cold moon. Outlines of a calendar and the muted colors of a few pinups gazed back in the dark: A pouting blonde with a tiny bikini on the verge of suddenly thrusting her firm breasts free over the edge; a brunette with a bosom even more strikingly overcrowded, beneath an incongruously fetching, homegrown smile; a glossy Playboy redhead with tiny freckles across the bridge of her nose, azure eyes, and pink, firm nipples blazing atop high-set breasts. It suddenly occurred to Cameron that he had already changed: He looked at them differently now, and preferred the dark haired one with unkept hair and deep sad brown eyes.”
“The moonbeam glided evenly, serenely dispassionate over the ocean. Its light pursued an unchanging diagonal, falling like a light-well from the talons of an eaglesky,down through dark shrouded horizons of air and water, continuing like a geometric God towards the ship. The moonbeam’s cocoon of light enveloped its metal in soft gold. It followed them like that over the sea, as if the ship were some point of reference in a celestial game, a cosmic Pythagorean triangle--the sky, a moon-streak ethereal, and a small toy ship in the ocean.”
Even warships are described as such: “...4,500 tons of displaced blue water, half steel, half aluminum, four boilers, two propellers the size of tractors; commissioned four years ago, it was named after a Navy Lieutenant who had exploded along with his patrol boat in the Mekong Delta. Sleek, efficient, silent, beautiful. It was strange its efficiency was guided by men with a purpose of less beauty than the ship itself.”
Chris concludes: “...there isn’t enough warmth in anyone’s heart to let in all the world’s cold.”
There are so many incredible quotes and parts in this book. So, let's talk about the book itself. For all the incredible things it says and does, this book does have a few weaknesses. One of those issues is pacing. When you're first introduced to Cameron, the book meanders a bit with scientific and medical jargon. You get to see how Cameron responds to different patients and situations in his medical practice—how much he despises the machine. The thing is, one or two patients weren't enough, you encounter one patient after another patient after another patient. And, yes, each is interesting in their own right (some more than others) and there is some character development, but in the context of where this book eventually goes, it doesn't seem to fit all too well.
When you're first introduced to this book, it seems like a bunch of case studies intended to teach medical students in an Informatics class. If you've been in an Informatics class, you'd recognize that right away. So, we were thinking, is that the point of this book? To learn from fictitious case studies that read like those math problems where Timmy bought 40 cakes and traveled 25 miles, how many cakes does he have at the end of those miles?
This section is probably the most interesting and our favorite in the whole book. It's the only section of the book that kept our interest from the beginning of it to the end. It's hard to say why. Some of us are from the medical/healthcare field and appreciate some of these situations being represented on paper. That's unique. We haven't seen that much.
However, this book takes such a drastic, dramatic turn when Cameron basically goes to war as a medic and continues some sort of long-distance romance side-plot. It's a bit jarring and doesn't seem to fit well with the opening chapters. When this book becomes a military novel, we started to lose interest, even when the bullets were firing and things were exploding. We've seen and read about that stuff dozens of times before.
We've read so many Vietnam War novels, it becomes cloying and depressing after a while. It feels like everyone's doing it and talking about it. It's always either the Vietnam War or World War II. While this does give you a rather unique perspective of the conflict (from a disgruntled doctor's point of view), it doesn't change the fact that it's such change of face and feel from the earlier chapters.
Moving onward, the book seems to nosedive a little bit as we follow more of Cameron's love life and and his personal quest to find himself and his place in the universe. Now, it's not abnormal for him to do this in the desert. After all, John the Baptist, Jesus, and Moses had moments of discovery in the desert.
It just feels like this book skips around just a little too much for its own good. Just when you're intrigued and leaning in to learn more, the book takes you somewhere else entirely. You rarely ever hear about Cameron's former patients again, so, they exist only as bricks in the wall of Cameron's character development. However, at least Cameron IS a character who receives development and seems like a real person. He might be one of the most realistic characters we've seen in a novel, which is a huge plus.