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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Reading List: Abuse of Power

Savage, Michael [Michael Alan Weiner]. Abuse of Power. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-312-55301-2.
The author, a popular talk radio host who is also a Ph.D. in nutritional ethnomedicine and has published numerous books under his own name, is best known for his political works, four of which have made the New York Times bestseller list including one which reached the top of that list. This is his first foray into the fictional thriller genre, adopting a style reminiscent of Rudy Rucker's transrealism, in which the author, or a character closely modelled upon him or her, is the protagonist in the story. In this novel, Jack Hatfield is a San Francisco-based journalist dedicated to digging out the truth and getting it to the public by whatever means available, immersed in the quirky North Beach culture of San Francisco, and banned in Britain for daring to transgress the speech codes of that once-free nation. Sound familiar?

While on a routine ride-along with a friend from the San Francisco Police Department bomb squad, Hatfield finds himself in the middle of a carjacking gone horribly wrong, where the evidence of his own eyes and of witnesses at the scene contradicts the soothing narrative issued by the authorities and swallowed whole by the legacy media. As Hatfield starts to dig beneath the surface, he discovers a trail of murders which seem to point to a cover-up by a shadowy but well-funded and ruthlessly efficient organisation whose motives remain opaque. This leads him on a trail which takes him to various points around the world and finally back to San Francisco, where only he and his small circle of friends can expose and thwart a plot aimed at regime change in the country which fancied itself the regime changer for the rest of the world.

Inevitably, I have some technical quibbles.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
  • On p. 25, it is assumed that a cellular mobile telephone can communicate with a like unit without going through the cellular network (which, in this case, is blocked by a police jammer) if it is in line of sight and close enough to the other telephone. This is not the case; even if it were technologically possible, how would the Phone Company charge you for the call?
  • On p. 144 a terrorist mole is granted a G-2 visa to work at a foreign consulate in the U.S. In fact, a G-2 visa is granted only to individuals travelling to the U.S. to attend meetings of international organisations. The individual in question would have required an A-1 or A-2 diplomatic visa to enter the U.S.
  • On p. 149 Jack takes out a Remington shotgun loaded with 12-gauge rounds, and just two paragraphs later lays “the rifle across his forearm”. A shotgun is not a rifle.
  • This is not a quibble but a high-five. The shortened URL in the decrypted message on p. 257 points precisely where the novel says it does.
  • When will thriller authors sit down and read The Effects of Nuclear Weapons? On p. 355 we're faced with the prospect of a “satchel nuke” being detonated atop one of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge and told:
    There would have been thousands of deaths within days, tens of thousands within weeks, over a million within a month—many of those among people who would have been needed to keep the infrastructure from collapsing. Doctors, police, workers at power plants and sewage centers. [sic (sentence fragment)] The environment would have become so toxic that rescue workers couldn't have gotten into the area, and poisoned food and water would have added exponentially to the death toll. Airdrops of fresh supplies would have led to riots, more death. Silicon Valley would have been ravaged, all but destroying the U.S. computer industry.
    Nonsense—a plausible satchel nuke of a size which Sara (admittedly a well-trained woman) could carry in a backpack would be something like the U.S. SADM, which weighed around 68 kg, more than most in-shape women. The most common version of this weapon was based upon the W54 warhead, which had a variable yield from 10 tons to 1 kiloton. Assuming the maximum one kiloton yield, a detonation would certainly demolish the Golden Gate Bridge and cause extensive damage to unreinforced structures around the Bay, but the radiation effects wouldn't be remotely as severe as asserted; there would be some casualties to those downwind and in the fallout zone, but these would be more likely in the hundreds and over one or more decades after the detonation. The fact that the detonation occurred at the top of a tower taller than those used in most surface detonations at the Nevada Test Site and above water would further reduce fallout. Silicon Valley, which is almost 100 km south of the detonation site, would be entirely unaffected apart from Twitter outages due to #OMG tweets. The whole subplot about the “hydrazine-based rocket fuel” tanker crossing the bridge is silly: hydrazine is nasty stuff to be sure, but first of all it is a hypergolic liquid rocket fuel, not an “experimental solid rocket fuel”. (Duh—if it were solid, why would you transport it in a tanker?) But apart from that, hydrazine is one of those molecules whose atoms really don't like being so close to one another, and given the slightest excuse will re-arrange themselves into a less strained configuration. Being inside a nuclear fireball is an excellent excuse to do so, hence the closer the tanker happened to be to the detonation, the less likely the dispersal of its contents would cause casualties for those downwind.
Spoilers end here.  

This is an enjoyable and promising debut for an author who is embarking upon the craft of the thriller, and none of the natters above (if you chose to read them) detracted from this reader's enjoyment of the story. Is it up to the standard of recent work from masters of the genre such as Vince Flynn or Brad Thor? No—but it's a good read and auspicious start; I will certainly give forthcoming novels from this author a try.

Posted at June 23, 2012 22:09