Lane Godfrey is a killer as well as a man of science. By the time Self-Inflicted opens, the murder has occurred and we meet a Lane Godfrey who is a worried man. Worried because someone, Sloan Fischer, could potentially tag him as a killer. If only Sloan recalls a simple fact, which as yet she hasn't done, then she will have proof of his crime. Lane decides to kill Sloan before she finds that proof.
The book is subtitled "A Metaphysical Thriller," which is a little misleading in the sense that someone who has yet to read it may think it is heavy, with paragraphs filled with scientific theory. There is some of that, but the book is in fact primarily a page-turner, a crisply written tale (tales, actually) of suspense. The plot revolves around time travel (more of that later) that serves as a device allowing the author to link a series of separate tales that take place in the past, all involving the former lives of Lane Godlfrey, Sloan Fischer and her husband (barely) Jason. Sloan and Jason are separated, their marriage in trouble.
In order to save Sloan's life, Jason must go back into the past -- where Lane has gone already -- to protect her. Jason has lived many past lives and not all as a man. In 1579, he was a girl named Gata'mo. In 793, he is a sensitive young boy of 13 named Hengst. In 292 he is a woman named Mayati living on the banks of the Nile. There are other lives he's lived as well and each tale describing each life is very well done indeed. Each story could stand on its own merit as a well-written engrossing short story.
Now back to the time travel. The trouble with Self-Inflicted is the plot device that links all the tales together. Not with the concept of time travel, per se, which has been utilized well in the past by many writers, but with this book's reason for the time travel. Lane has gone back into the past. Why? To get Sloan to kill him! Apparently, under the rules of the universe as divined by Lane (and others in this novel) karma is the primary ruling force of humankind. Everything must be balanced. In order for Lane to kill Sloan, he must first go back in time and induce Sloan (in a former life) to kill him. Then, in this life, he will be able to kill her while keeping perfect karma. A philosophy of perfect balance. An accountant's mentality. Readers might not quite buy into it.
There is a another problem with this book stemming from the author's concept of what time is. He has a character compare it to the songs on a compact disc:
"So you're listening to a part of a song, experiencing hearing the song, but that doesn't mean the rest of that song, or any of the other songs, have disappeared. They're all still there on the surface of the disc. To experience the song before the one you're listening to, you just have to access a part of the disc where the ones and zeros are arranged differently."
"The brain is an electronic device. The system just changes its waveform...and matches up with another body"
So all our past lives (like the songs on a CD) are "on" the disc (with time being the disc) just waiting for us to press the "replay button" in order to access them again. To "tune in" like twisting the dial on a radio. Where is the dial? It's in our minds, just waiting for us to discover the means of turning it. Well, this concept might make nice cocktail party chatter but, again, readers may not fully buy the author's premise.
So what? It's his book right? Okay. Except that, even granting the author the possibility that all our lives are still there like songs on a CD, there seems to be an inherant problem with how the theory relates to the book. That is, if the songs previously heard on the CD are fixed (our past lives) then so must be the songs yet to be heard. Or the lives yet to be lived. That is, whether or not we've listened to song 12 yet on the CD (assuming we're only up to song 5) song 12 is already coded, already exists, and is sitting there waiting for the brain to tune in to it. Our future lives, by this theory, are already lived. Thus our future is already predetermined. It's simply waiting for us to tune in. If predetermined, then why is everyone running around trying to change the past (and future) events?
Well, the writer might argue, it's predetermined but it can also be changed. So we're not just tuning in (as suggested by the author) but also actively recording new notes. Maybe, but maybe not. And why does changing the "notes" on one song necessarily affect the notes on another? I know. Karma.
Predetermination as a theme runs subtly throughout the book. The "Self-inflicted" of the title refers back to the karma principle. You are what you make yourself. And you make yourself through the existence of your previous lives. You receive what you have "earned" through the actions of your previous lives and your own resulting karma. That is why Lane tries to induce Sloan to kill her. She must earn her own murder.
Taking this to its logical conclusion, this principle declares that the tragedies some people recieve in this life are due to the hurts they inflicted to others in earlier lives, and so they now deserve to receive them. This is philosophy and theology, social theory, for the rich and well-to-do. Why are they well off? Because they deserve it. No other reason. Their karma is good. With this as a belief system they have no other duty to society than to stand around and pat themselves on their collective back for being wonderful. Why are the poor not well off? Because they deserve it. Their karma is bad. This way of thinking essentially blames the victim for whatever happens. Sloan must earn her murder. Ergo, all people who are murdered must have previously already earned their murders. They are to blame. This is the meaning of the title. All our hurts are ultimately "self-inflicted".
Whether readers find this kind of theory/theology/whatever personally distasteful, the problem regarding the novel is that this theory does more to impede the plot of this book rather than push it along. It creates more questions for the reader than it provides answers. For example, one might ask, if Lane goes back into the past to induce Sloan (in a previous life) to kill him, so what? By the rules of karma and the logic of this book, she has, if she succumbs to the temptation, then earned her right to die. So be it. Why not simply trust Sloan (in her previous lives) to make the right choices? It's her karma. Why do her friends and Jason assume that, unless Jason runs back in time to "help" her she will make the wrong choice?
Another question: are all murders equal, as implied by Lane's purpose? If, for example, Lane attacks Sloan's mother (in a previous life) and Sloan, in defending her mother from a murderer, kills Lane, is that the same karma-producing event as Lane's act of cold-blooded murder? Are both killings equal in evil as Self-Inflicted suggests? If so, and if Sloan kills Lane (regardless of the reason), then isn't she as evil ultimately as he is? Doesn't she then deserve to be killed by Lane?
There are more questions, but before this turns into a philosophy discussion instead of a review, let me just say that, as a reader, ultimately, I just couldn't accept the notion of a cold-blooded killer (which Lane is, in all of his lives) worrying about his karma to such a degree that he postpones killing a potential witness against him. He certainly doesn't seem to worry about balance or karma when living in his past lives and committing crimes, some heineous, in order to induce Sloan to kill him. No worrying about "balance" then.
The author, by not simply sticking to a more standard sci-fi method of explaining the time-trips (or providing a better motive for the trips taken with this method), has done his book a disservice. Why not have Lane go back in time to kill Sloan's parents? Or grandparents? And put Jason in a good old-fashioned time-machine to protect them? This would explain the necessity of the time trips and would allow the author to let things simply rip. Good vs. Evil, clearly defined. Self-Inflicted, without the impediments of the theory of time as presented and the karma philosophy thrown into it, would have been an excellent read. As it is, the book has not been served well by its more esoteric concepts. There's nothing inherently wrong with putting philosophy and scientific theories into novels, providing they serve the plot. In this case, I don't think they do.
Still, Jeffrey Thornton writes otherwise excellently in the modern page-turner style. Other readers might find the time-travel concept and karma principles more acceptable and those readers will thoroughly enjoy the novel. Others who don't quite accept the concepts will nevertheless enjoy each of the tales of Sloan's and Jason's previous lives, all of which are gripping reads and quite well-written.