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Saturday, June 9, 2012

Reading List: Ark

McCarry, Charles. Ark. New York: Open Road, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4532-5820-0.

All right, I suppose some readers will wish me to expand somewhat on the capsule review in the first paragraph, but it really does say it all. The author is a veteran and bestselling author of spy fiction (and former deep cover CIA agent) who is best known for his Paul Christopher novels. Here he turns his hand to science fiction and promptly trips over his cloak and inflicts a savage dagger wound on the reader.

The premise is that since the Earth's core has been found to rotate faster than the outer parts of the planet (a “discovery” found, subsequent to the novel's publication, to have been in error by six orders of magnitude), the enormous kinetic energy of the core is periodically dissipated by being coupled to the mantle and crust, resulting in a “hyperquake” in which the Earth's crust would be displaced not metres on a localised basis, but kilometres and globally. This is said to explain at least some of the mass extinctions in the fossil record.

Henry Peel, an intuitive super-genius who has become the world's first trillionaire based upon his invention of room temperature superconductivity and practical fusion power, but who lives incognito, protected by his ex-special forces “chaps”, sees this coming (in a vision, just like his inventions), and decides to use his insight and wealth to do something about it. And now I draw the curtain, since this botched novel isn't worth carefully crafting non-spoiler prose to describe the multitudinous absurdities with which it is festooned.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
For no reason apparent in the text, Henry recruits the protagonist and narrator, a somewhat ditzy female novelist (at one point she invites a stalker to her hide-out apartment because she forgets the reason she moved there in the first place). This character makes occasional off-the-wall suggestions which Henry, for some reason, finds profound, and becomes a member of Henry's inner circle and eventually closer still.

Henry decides that the way to survive the coming extinction event is to build a spacecraft which can cruise the solar system for generations, tended by a crew that reproduces itself, and carrying a cargo of genetically enhanced (oops!—never mind—Henry changes his mind and goes with showroom stock H. sap genome) embryos which can be decanted to establish colonies on the planets and moons and eventually repopulate the Earth. To this end, he invents:

  • A single stage to orbit reusable spaceplane powered by a new kind of engine which does not emit a rocket plume
  • A space drive which “would somehow draw its fuel from the charged particles in the solar wind”
  • Artificial gravity, based upon diamagnetism

Whenever an invention is needed to dig this plot out of a hole, Henry just has a vision and out it pops. Edison be damned—for Henry it's 100% inspiration and hold the perspiration!

He builds this enormous infrastructure in Mongolia, just across the border from China, having somehow obtained a free hand to do so while preserving his own off-the-radar privacy.

Sub-plots come and go with wild abandon. You think something's going to be significant, and then it just sputters out or vanishes as if it never happened. What the heck is with that circle of a dozen missiles in Mongolia, anyway? And you could take out the entire history and absurdly implausible coincidence of the narrator's meeting her rapist without any impact on the plot. And don't you think a trillionaire would have somebody on staff who could obtain a restraining order against the perp and hire gumshoes to keep an eye on his whereabouts?

Fundamentally, people and institutions do not behave the way they do in this story. How plausible is it that a trillionaire, building a vast multinational infrastructure for space migration, would be able to live off the radar in New York City, without any of the governments of the jurisdictions in which he was operating taking notice of his activities? Or that the media would promptly forget a juicy celebrity scandal involving said trillionaire because a bunch of earthquakes happened? Or that once the impending end of human civilisation became public that everybody would get bored with it and move on to other distractions? This whole novel reads like one of my B-list dreams: disconnected, abstracted from reality, and filled with themes that fade in and out without any sense of continuity. I suppose one could look at it as a kind of end-times love story, but who cares about love stories involving characters who are unsympathetic and implausible?

Spoilers end here.  

One gets the sense that the author hadn't read enough science fiction to fully grasp the genre. It's fine to posit a counterfactual and build the story from that point. But you can't just make stuff up with wild abandon whenever you want, no less claim that it “came in a vision” to an inventor who has no background in the field. Further, the characters (even if they are aliens utterly unlike anything in the human experience, which is not the case here) have to behave in ways consistent with their properties and context.

In a podcast interview with the author, he said that the publisher of his spy fiction declined to publish this novel because it was so different from his existing œuvre. Well, you could say that, but I suspect the publisher was being kind to a valued author in not specifying that the difference was not in genre but rather the quality of the work.

Posted at June 9, 2012 21:27