The Trigger, Arthur C. Clarke & Michael Kube-McDowell

Bantam Spectra, 1999, 447 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-10458-6

According to some SF commentators, your reviewer included, science-fiction is about the effects of change on human behavior. That change is usually linked to scientific and technological innovation is unavoidable, but not essential. This definition of SF isn’t perfect (nor accepted by all), but it allows to define an idea-space in which SF can distinguish itself from all other types of fiction.

At the same time, it allows “pure-SF” fans to distance themselves from the unimaginative drivel that passes itself as SF in the media and in the general population’s worst stereotypes about the genre. In media terms, STAR WARS isn’t SF (it’s fantasy in futuristic trappings) and most of STAR TREK isn’t SF (it’s adventure/soap opera in space) while GATTACA is SF (studying biotechnology-induced changes in humanity) and DARK CITY is SF (musing on artificial manipulation of memory on a society). Science-Fiction should be conceptually solid, imaginative, preferably controversial.

Needless to say, unimaginative adventures-with-laser-guns are far more common than “true SF”, nowadays as yesterday. But fans of the pure stuff can now run to their bookstores, because a new must-read is in town.

The Trigger is a “What if?” novel of the first order: What if someone came up with a foolproof way to remotely detonate all nitrate-based explosives? Practically speaking, this would blow up -at a distance- most munitions and explosives in common usage. The perfect gun control tool.

Had The Trigger been written in any other civilized country in the world, the results would have been interesting, but not much more. Of course, this being published in the United States (let’s not fool ourselves in thinking that English-born Sri Lanka resident Arthur C. Clarke has anything more to do with the book than collaborating to the outline), The Trigger has to face America’s centuries-old fascination with guns, conspiracies and government.

The results are fascinating. The impacts of The Trigger are examined and explained in great detail, as the discovery is handed from the scientific to the political and military community. Everyone who comes in contact with The Trigger immediately wish it would disappear, but everyone has to face the fact that it’s here to stay, and accommodations must be made in order to ensure its rational use. Gun Lobbies inevitably get into the act, lawsuits fly, private corporations rush Triggers to the market and private citizen watch it all happen with increasing discomfort. Top-notch extrapolation all around, along with some preachiness. Certainly not subtle, but nevertheless compulsively readable.

There are a few problems, though. The characters of the first half essentially disappear in the latter part of the book. Then the ending falls apart as one character is killed in a rather useless fashion, and another has to face enemies closer to caricature. A shame, because up to that point, The Trigger had labored hard to present “the opposing side” as basically decent people. After the intellectual complexity of the first 400 pages, it’s a let-down to see the climax being nothing but an action-adventure bit facing stock villains. A chilling afterword kind of makes up for it. (Though, given the conceptual breakthrough at mid-novel, one would expect this type of discovery -not to mention bigger, better innovations- to be made much earlier than twenty years later!)

But it doesn’t really matter. With The Trigger, Kube-McDowell has achieved something quite remarkable: Break the “Clark Collaboration Rule” (which used to state that every novel written in collaboration with Clarke does suck.) and produce a novel that stands alone in its own right. The Trigger is, in general, everything that SF should be: It postulates a radical technological change, follows its controversial social implications and does so in an magnificently entertaining fashion. Don’t miss it.

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