Kilo Class, Patrick Robinson

Harper Collins, 1998, 442 pages, C$35.50 hc, ISBN 0-06-019129-5

In the Science-Fiction community, there is a certain prejudice about the so called “Hard-SF” segment of the genre, which is the epitome of scientific exactitude in SF. This concern has led critics to charge that the genre consistently privileged scientific content (ie; the “Science” in “SF”) over such niceties as characters, plotting or writing style. (“Fiction” in “SF”)

Amusingly, this debate also takes place outside the genre of SF. In the category of thrillers, for instance, you’ve got the same division. On one side, these fairly generic writers content to churn out pulpish book after another about spies, war and conspiracies. On the other, these authors who take great pain into researching the hardware, the politics, the procedures. Ludlum, Follett and Le Carre versus Clancy, Coonts and Coyle.

Patrick Robinson made a certain splash in the thriller audience last year with the release of Nimitz Class, a novel that begins with the nuclear vaporization of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.

In my previous review of Nimitz Class, (“starts promisingly enough… a few characters are efficiently set up… then the novel goes awry… goes on an unexpected direction… then on another tangent… very anticlimactic… unconvincing romantic thread… odd bits of exposition in dialogue… barely worth a library loan. In paperback.”) I was disappointed by the lack of plotting skill, the laughable romance and the useless detours. The faults were made worse by what is unarguably a fairly strong first third.

Kilo Class is more even, but overall a weaker entry than its predecessor. The plot is of a laughable simplicity: China has bought ten submarines from Russia. The United States doesn’t want China to receive these subs, so they do everything they can to destroy them.

Gimmicky; given that two subs are already in safe haven at the beginning of the novel and that this is pretty much everything the good ole’ USA will tolerate, you can bet that the novel won’t stop until most of the submarines are destroyed.

Most of Kilo Class, then, is like watching one (or several) car (or sub) accident happening. These dastardly americans hatch their plot, then send their best elements to execute them. Most of the time, they succeed. Since Robinson is a “hard-thriller” writer, he lays on the details pretty thick. We’re not only told that SEALs have blown up a submarine, but we also get fully fifty pages of preparations plus a twenty-page investigation by the bad guys. The result is almost interminable.

Unlike Nimitz Class, Kilo Class becomes more focused as the story evolves, and while most readers will find themselves asking why they’re reading the first half of the book, the last hundred pages are a lot more fun. But it’s an uphill battle until then.

Robinson’s weak characterisation (don’t plan on making any friends in this book) and suspicious plotting (what was it with the Kerguelen Islands?) make things difficult for anyone else but a dedicated techno-thriller buff. Fortunately, bits and pieces of interest spice up the going, like a tremendously exciting description of three submarines’ demise.

Of a most serious nature is the ludicrousness of the main premise. The United States risking war, attacking enemy ships under no clear and present threat? I don’t think so, and the afterword didn’t convince me.

Summing up: Mixed reactions toward Kilo Class. It’s definitely not worth the $35.50C. for the hardcover. In fact, I’m not even sure it’s worth a library loan. Nimitz Class fans might want to read it to find out what happened to Bill Baldridge (it’s a loose sequel to Nimitz Class), but beyond that… Summer 1998 has too many good new books by established techno-thriller authors (Bond, Brown, Coonts… even Clancy!) to waste on Kilo Class, a decidedly average entry in the genre.

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