Waiter, What's This Fantasy Doing in My Political Thriller?

Olen Steinhauer's been getting a lot of praise for his new novel The Tourist, so I decided to give him a try. But I'm not going to blind-buy a hardcover novel, so I opted for one of his older and cheaper works: Liberation Movements.

This is a story about Armenian terrorists blowing up a plane en route to Turkey, and the police investigation at the departure point. Fairly standard stuff, except that the police are state security officers in an Eastern European Ruritania during the Cold War[1].

The police learn that the terrorists had simply intended on hijacking the plane and making demands, but something spooked them into detonating their bombs. Then the police become interested in one passenger in particular, a woman who had been held in a mental institution until a few weeks before. But when they try to find the hospital, they discover it doesn't exist. This in turn leads to a startling discovery -- the "hospital" was a front for a counter-intelligence operation.

You see, the "patients" at the hospital were all supposed psychics, and the security service had leaked to the Western powers that the staff had made extraordinary breakthroughs in harnessing telepathic powers. This was enough to lure spy after spy to the facility, where the security service murdered them. Steinhauer's obviously been listening to too much Coast-to-Coast AM -- whatever experiments the CIA did with psychics, it was never given high priority, and the idea that they'd risk numerous agents to infiltrate the East Bloc equivalent is far fetched. But we're still within the realm of possibility.

And then comes the big twist -- the girl on the plane was really psychic. She had the power to, like, tap into the cosmic-all, man, and see the connections around us. Synchronicity, dude, synchronicity -- like when you're thinking about a plate o' shrimp, and then someone says "plate" or "shrimp." Or "plate o' shrimp". And, like, she used this power to extrapolate the future, so she knew the terrorists would hijack the plane, and she knew what she had to ensure everything ended peacefully.

Except it didn't quite work out that way -- the puny human mind isn't capable of comprehending the allness of the cosmos, and it only took one overlooked fact for events to spin out of her control.

This twist came late enough in the book that I finished it instead of hurling it against the wall -- but it was a close call. This sort of last-minute genre-bending twist is very angry-making. I've read numerous fantasy, horror, and science fiction novels with similar plot elements, but in those cases the authors tell you up front, "This isn't a book set in the mundane world. Crank your suspension of disbelief to 11." I'm fine with that. But when a writer grounds the story firmly in reality and then reveals in the last chapter, "By the way, this is actually a fantasy," it ruins the whole thing.

But there's a subtler problem -- the way Steinhauer presents the twist, you get the sense that he doesn't see it as a violation of reality. It's like the difference between The Dead Zone and The Ghost Whisperer, or the Illuminatus! and The Da Vinci Code -- one is written by people who know they're spinning a yarn, while the other feels like the writers believe the premise. This adds an earnestness to the story that undermines my suspension of disbelief.

I know Steinhauer isn't the first author to do something like this, but I'm blanking on other examples. There are tons of TV shows as examples, but what about literature?

[1] This is apparently the hot new genre in mysteries and political thrillers. Steinhauer's written five novels in this setting, and Tom Rob Smith has two mysteries set in the Soviet Union of the 1950s.


Rocket Men by Craig (not T.) Nelson

Rocket Men is a rather preposterous novel about the United States sending a space craft to the moon in 1969. The story begins with the rocket on the launchpad, waiting for blast off, with brief flashbacks to the launch prep, as the administrators make last minute checks on mission readiness and the "astronauts" undergo final training.

(The astronauts are named -- and I swear I'm not making this up -- Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. And "Buzz" isn't a nickname -- that's the character's legal name. Thankfully the third astronaut isn't Al American. He's Michael Collins. Why Nelson would name a character after a prominent member of the Irish Republican Army is beyond me.)

Then, just before lift-off, the story goes into an extended flashback. First comes a big infodump on the history of rocketry, from Oberth, Goddard, and Tsiolkovsky, to the German development of the V2. And this is where the book goes off the rails, launching into an absurd conspiracy wherein the Nazi scientists flee from the Red Army and seek asylum in America, where they're welcomed with open arms. This introduces a bizarre subplot involving these former Nazis settling in a small town in Alabama, where they establish themselves as members of the community while working on new rocket systems.

At the same time, the Soviets launch a bit of tinfoil into space with a radio transmitter. They follow this up by launching a crockpot with a dog inside, and cooking it on reentry. These feats, combined with a perceived Soviet superiority in ballistic missiles, prompt a young American President to brashly promise that the US will place a man on the moon within ten years.

What follows would be, in a movie, a musical montage, as the American space agency perfects the technology necessary and locates the best-of-the-best to fly the ship. The book loops around on itself as we finally get back to the launch and the mission proceeds.

And what a bizarre mission. Instead of building a ship that can go from the Earth to the Moon, land, take-off and return to the Earth, the US has built a vessel that will go into lunar orbit and then launch a shuttle craft for the actual landing. Nelson offers some technobabble about why this is a better design, but it never entirely makes sense. To his credit, though, Nelson does make the engineers dubious of the idea when it's first proposed, having them point out all the flaws.

The upshot of this mission profile is that one of the astronauts -- Collins -- has to stay on the ship while the other two take the shuttle to the surface. Exactly what Collins does while they're gone is never explained. Sounds like the most boring job in the world -- the ship is too small for him to do much, and the computers are absurdly weak, so he can't even play chess or solitaire.

The best part of the novel is the landing sequence, which features several technical flaws that almost derail the mission. First, the flight computer has insufficient RAM to deal with the sensor input and keeps freezing up. Then, despite the best laid plans, the crew finds their pre-picked landing site covered with boulders. Armstrong has to use an enormous amount of fuel to stay aloft, only sighting a flat piece of ground when he's within seconds of having to abort. The scene strains credibility, but Nelson's writing makes it exciting despite itself.

The actual time on the moon is rather anti-climactic. You'd think something exciting would happen there, but no. No aliens, no disasters, no Great Discoveries that change the way we see the world. The biggest problem faced by the crew is that the touchdown was so soft that it didn't trigger the shock-absorbers and retract the landing struts. As such, there's a three foot gap between the ladder and lunar surface. This renders Armstrong's first words on the moon ironic -- "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." (That's the exact quote -- you'd think an editor would've caught the missing article in the first clause. As it stands, the sentence doesn't make a lot of sense.) The other challenges faced are pretty minor -- the top-soil (if you can call it that) is so thin the astronauts have a hard time getting the flag to stand up; Buzz describes a rock as looking like mica, which pisses off the geologists at mission control.

The crew lifts off and makes an unremarkable rendezvous with the mothership, followed by an uneventful return to Earth.

The characters are borderline cardboard -- everyone who works for this NASA organization is an uber-professional expert who seems to have stepped out of the 1950s. Nelson even mentions this, explaining that the scientists, engineers and astronauts are so focused on their jobs that they don't pay attention to the changing world outside. The only exception is the, uh, let's say "feisty," Buzz. One memorable scene has him arguing about whether he or Armstrong should be the first on the surface. Unfortunately for him, plot-logic dictates that the guy named Buzz must be the wacky sidekick and Armstrong the jut-jawed hero. You just know that in the movie, Armstrong would be played by Leslie Nielsen and Buzz by Earl Holliman. Too bad there's no room for Anne Francis.

The book does well enough in depicting what space might really be like, but this whole "mundane sci-fi" movement does nothing for me. No Robbie the Robot, no sale.


Rebels of the Red Planet by Charles L. Fontenay

Librivox Audiobook
Gutenberg etext

Mars. Barsoom. Desert Planet.

After decades of human settlement, Mars remains an inhospitable place where people are confined to pressurized environments. All trade must go through the Mars Corporation, which is more interested in maximizing profits than making life comfortable for the colonists. Terraforming and adapting crops to Mars are given low priority.

Years ago, a secret organization, the Order of the Phoenix, tried to break the Mars Corp. monopoly. Their leader, Albus Dumble -- sorry, wrong Order of the Phoenix. The Order divided into two groups, both devoted to making humans more like the native Martians. One group, headed by G.O.T. "Goat" Hennessey, wanted to gengineer humans to survive in the low-pressure atmosphere; the other, run by Dark Kensington, sought to unlock powers in the human mind that would allow people to teleport goods directly from Earth. But then Goat betrayed the Phoenix. The government crushed the group and Dark Kensington disappeared, presumed dead.

Now the Order has reformed, operating out of a barber college of all places. And then one day, Dark reappears, apparently unaged and with no memory of the last twenty-five years. At the same time, S. Newell Eli, an agent of the Martian government, with the help of a Terran agent, Maya Cara Nome, are investigating the resurgent Phoenix.

Rebels of the Red Planet is Golden Age pulp at it's finest -- there's nothing too deep here, but it's hard not to get drawn into the rollicking adventure of it all. The characters are standard-issue, but well developed, especially Maya Cara Nome as the plucky secret agent and Newell, who could almost be Thomas Nau's brother.


Monster by A. Lee Martinez

Judy works the overnight shift as a stockgirl at a grocery store. One night when she goes to the freezer aisle, she finds a yeti eating all the rocky road ice cream. Her manager is nonplussed by this and doesn't know what to do, so Judy takes it upon herself to call animal control.

They send out a cryptobiological containment specialist, a working class stiff named Monster. Monster is a cognizant, one of the lucky few whose mind can process supernatural events. Due to a magical accident early in his career, he has a supernatural power -- or powers; he changes color every time he goes to sleep, and each color gives him a different ability, often of dubious usefulness. His partner is Chester, an extra-dimensional entity who manifests in our world by possessing origami dolls. Monster also has a girlfriend from hell -- literally; she's a succubus. Her demands for constant sex have drained all the fun from Monster's life, but breaking up with her could be even worse.

Monster dispatches the yeti easily enough, but over the next few days he finds himself encountering Judy again and again as she's attacked by more and stranger creatures. Monster realizes Judy is a light cog -- unlike normal people, her mind doesn't just gloss over the supernatural, but neither does it have the structures to retain knowledge of it, so she soon forgets the things that happen to her, creating stories to explain away the damage.

But Judy is also more than a light cog -- she's in the eye of a cosmic hurricane, and the target of an old woman, Mrs. Lotus, who wants to use her for nefarious purposes. And by "old" I mean, older than this universe, and several that came before it. Soon Judy, Monster and Chester are caught up in an epic battle that will decide the fate of the entire universe.

The biggest flaw with Martinez's books is the endings. I don't mean that in the Stephensonian sense where the story just halts without any resolution. Indeed, Martinez is very good at structuring his endings. But in the last fifty pages of his books, the plot always overwhelms the funny, and it's no different here. In a serious novel -- even something as light as Harry Potter -- the final confrontation between Monster, Judy and Lotus would be entirely satisfying. But here it's a detour from the witty banter that makes Martinez's writing so entertaining.

On the other hand, the delightfulness of Martinez's writing covers some flaws in the world building. Chester, Lotus, the angels and demons, and cryptobiological critters seem to belong to different mythoses. There appear to be several layers of creation in this universe, but it's not clear which is superior to which. Are the angels and demons from a different meta-level of reality than the cryptobiologicals? Is Chester's alternate dimension a higher meta-level than heaven and hell or Lotus's reality? They seem like pieces from different puzzles that have been forced together.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the denouement is how it represents a complete game-changer. Most urban fantasies can be classed as either secret histories -- like the Buffyverse, where ordinary people have some sort of block that prevents them from noticing the supernatural phenomenon around them -- or alternate histories -- Marc del Franco's paranormal detective series, for example, where fairies and magic are accepted parts of reality. Monster actually swings both ways -- most of the novel is a secret history, where only the cogs understand what's really going on with the universe, but the climax serves as a point of departure, after which everyone becomes cognizant. Sequels exploring this sudden change could be quite interesting.

Unfortunately, Martinez isn't big on sequels, though I'd certainly buy more books about Monster or Duke and Earl.

Earth Has Been Found by D. F. Jones

Imagine if John Wyndham had written Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That's Earth Has Been Found in a nutshell.

Planes are disappearing in mid-air and reappearing months, years, or even decades later on the other side of the world. Many of the pilots crash from disorientation, but several manage to put down safely. The passengers and crews have no recollection of the intervening time, and timepieces show that no more than a minute passed between the disappearances and reappearances. The US government labels the phenomenon as ICARUS and tries to keep it secret, though that proves impossible as more and more planes disappear.

The time travelers show no ill-effects -- in fact, they're healthier than ever. But Mark Freedman, a doctor in Abdera Hollow, New York, the home of a tour group that has been affected by ICARUS, notices something odd: many of his patients have developed a desire for raw liver. These patients soon drop into comas and develop cysts that hatch alien creatures.

These critters, named Xenos by Doc Freedman, are intelligent but non-sapient bugs. In their larval form, they're able to shoot a lethal venom from their tails, but after pupating they become vampiric as well. Scientists conclude that Xenos are not responsible for ICARUS, but are instead parasites that, in a reverse of War of the Worlds, were accidentally sent to Earth by the ICARUS entities.

The book follows a three act structure -- the first details the ICARUS mystery; the second the emergence of the larval Xenos; and finally the government's attempts to contain the Xenos -- with a framing story in the far future which -- well, let's just say, the John Wyndham comparison isn't for nothing. The prologue and epilogue have a very Chrysalids vibe.

One of the more interesting threads in the last half of the book is how people begin to think the ICARUS entities, with their ability to bend time and space, might be gods. This is a nice reversal of all those Arthur C. Clarke novels where first contact turns everyone into atheists -- here atheists suddenly start to believe. Unfortunately, this isn't handled well. For one thing, a god with lice isn't much of a god. (To be fair, Jones has a character make this point, though no one pays him any mind.) For another, no one ever says, "Sure, they *could* be gods. Or they could be aliens with sufficiently advanced technology." The Soviet leadership reacts as though ICARUS is definitive proof of god and refutation Marxist materialism. In the hands of someone like Robert Charles Wilson, this subplot could be great, but Jones flubs it, which undermines the ending.