Beyond Recall, Stephen Kyle

Warner Vision, 2000, 438 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60809-2

Thriller readers are most often presented with grotesquely non-negotiable alternatives. Evil terrorists versus pure peacekeepers. Democracy versus dictatorship. Blood-giving heroes versus puppy-kicking villains. Some will say that it’s typical of the American binary mindset: It’s much easier to make choices when you demonize the alternative, as it all too often happens during American elections.

On the other hand, such easy choices usually mean more straightforward entertainment. What would QUAKE be if you could choose to negotiate with your opponents? What if the terrorists in the latest Hollywood blockbusters were working toward a laudable goal? (To be fair, THE ROCK did this… only to turn around at a critical moment and have some terrorists “go renegade” on their leader, thereby re-establishing comfortable polarity) What if, instead of simple entertainment, we had flawed heroes and virtuous villains, setting up true drama in the process? With Beyond Recall, “simple thriller” readers get the chance to find out if such departures from the norm offer something more than the usual black-versus-white mentality of genre entertainment.

The premise is apparently simple: terrorists threaten to unleash a biologically-engineered plague on the United States if their demand are not meant. But the complications begin as soon as you look into it a bit further: The plague will target only women. The demands are to set up a multi-billion fund for the education of third-world women. The terrorists’ ultimate goal? To halt ecological damage through population control, one way of the other: Educate the women (a proven way to lower population growth and raise standards of living) or sharply reduce the reproductive capacity of the consuming nations.

Already, we’re presented with a moral dilemma: Though the ends are good, the method isn’t. And as the United States do not negotiate with terrorists, there’s a significant potential for mutually assured incomprehension.

Beyond Recall‘s basic premise is fascinating. Things don’t go as well as the various characters are introduced. To heighten drama, author Stephen Kyle basically interrelates everyone involved: The chief terrorist is the White House advisor on bio-terrorist matter but also the mother of a lobbyist who’s married to the FBI’s main man of the affair. Meanwhile, the chief terrorist is the ex-lover of the only doctor able to build an antidotes except that the doctor’s wife was one of the first victims of the virus’ test run… I’m not making any of this up.

The melodramatic (and somewhat ridiculous) interrelation between characters easily destroys most of the novel’s power though soap-operatic plot dynamics and god-awful resolutions. By the epilogue of the novel, the good doctor is doing the wild thang(s) with the lobbyist, which practically smacks of incest or, at the very least, of Hollywood-style old-man/young-girl power fantasies. Creepy, and maybe more than the premise.

When the novel fails at that level, it doesn’t take much to make it fail at other levels too. The pacing is deficient in the second half of the book. Kyle also blurs the distinction so much between good guys and bad guys (the President is painted as an angry idiot, the FBI agent as a bad guy for no real reason than he’s opposed to the chief terrorist which is set up as the protagonist, etc…) that readers might just give trying to find someone to cheer for. It’s all quite unbelievable, and that’s ultimately the impression left by the book.

If you’re going to blur good and evil, it takes a lot of skill to keep the reader going without clear reasons to cheer or jeer, and I frankly don’t think that Kyle is experienced enough. No reason to condemn the author in perpetuity; it’s still his first novel, after all. (And, heck, he’s a fellow Ontarian writer, so he deserves a little home-grown respect) But he still fails to deliver on an intriguing premise for reasons not entirely related to the premise itself. Veteran thriller readers might find Beyond Recall an intriguing experiment because of its failing, but readers looking for some comfortable summer beach reading are advised to skip this one.

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