Digital Death Panel by Dr. R. David Udy
A sort of techno murder mystery, Dr. R. David Udy’s Digital Death Panel follows the adventures of a wheelchair-bound, PTSD-ridden, medical marijuana toking, Gulf War veteran: Bruce MaComb. Our unlikely hero has been charged with overseeing the implementation of a new self-learning technology at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Las Vegas; intended to dramatically streamline operations and cut costs, this technology learns to determine which patients will end up being the most expensive overall and finds surreptitious means to terminate them, unbeknown to hospital staff. As the number of suspicious deaths increases, Bruce must enlist the help of a colorful group of friends – from chummy old colleagues, to a seductive new lover, to a brilliant young hospital patient – to uncover what is really going on and ultimately fight back against the malicious digital entity.
Dr. Udy manages to create some real excitement in this interesting near-future medical society; there is a sense of tension and anxiety and a taste of the genuine stress and sadness that must be part and parcel of hospital life. The narrative voice is warm and good-natured, which results in a storytelling style that is, overall, quite charming. Despite the genre elements of science-fiction, action, and even horror, things are largely kept on a realistic and believable scale, which is complimented nicely by the naturalistic chatter of the characters. It is, in fact, with a sense of fun comradery, highlighted with repartee, that the novel really succeeds – the characters and their dynamics really sparkle. This manages to arise despite somewhat mediocre descriptions and clunky writing; Dr. Udy’s penchant for presenting whole conversations as dense blocks of text can become burdensome and confusing for the reader, and there is a lot of obtuse jargon and technical descriptions that are thinly masked as dialogue and often repeated, which can dampen the thrills and horrors inherent in the novel’s premise. Tension is furthermore diffused by an awkward pacing – the novel rarely seems to build or arc properly, and it can become frustrating when the reader is able to understand almost everything about the menace from the onset – with a sort of status quo of malicious problems established and maintained from page one – whereas it takes the characters more than half of the novel to really begin to figure anything out. Perhaps most disappointing is the novel’s failure to really fully explore the political, moral, and metaphysical implications of so many of the potentially compelling issues that Dr. Udy brings up, like living with serious disability, the troublesome links between wealth and quality of life, or the value of one life over another in a society exhausting its resources. It is hard to really hold any of this against Digital Death Panel, as Dr. Udy’s vision – quaint and perhaps tinged with male fantasy as it is – is so idiosyncratically cordial that Bruce and his costars can easily endear themselves to the reader.