Putnam, 1997, 448 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-399-14241-X
When do you say enough is enough?
When do you start giving up on formerly-good authors, despite repeated substandard works, an overall feel of staleness and, frankly, a lack of fun in their latest novels? What’s “giving them another chance”; buying in used bookshops, tracking down cheap paperback copies, loaning at the library?
Dale Brown drove me to these questions with Fatal Terrain, the limp follow-up to Shadows of Steel, an already lifeless military thriller several notches below his earlier efforts. As Brown desperately tried to interest me in Chinese politics, I felt more fascinated by the mechanisms driving a formerly exciting author to mediocre output than with the actual plot of the novel.
So here is, in a few easy steps according to the Dale Brown corpus, how to become a has-been author.
One: Start your career with a few good books. That’s essential to become a disappointment, otherwise you’re just a mediocre author who keeps on churning trash. Dale Brown started his career with gripping high-concept novels such as Silver Tower, Hammerheads and what probably remains his career high, Day of the Cheetah. Good fun, fast reads, good characters. At that point, the sky wasn’t even the limit for Brown.
Two: Settle in a routine. If you managed to invent a few original gadgets and characters, just keep re-using them until you’ve squeezed out all interest, and then keep using them some more. Brown had an fascinating gadget in his first novel; a high-tech, refurbished B-52 capable of almost all military feats. (A natural wish for an ex-B-52 crewmember like Brown) While its use was integral to Flight of the Old Dog and justified in Night of the Hawk, it became ridiculous to see Brown apply his “magic toy” over and over again in his latest novels. Snap out of it, Dale, and that also stands for the characters you so lovingly fleshed out in the first novels: Now that the readers know everything about them, stop propping them up one more time whether it’s credible or not.
Three: Try to adjust your universe to fit the real-world. This works especially well if your earlier novels are wildly implausible. In Day of the Cheetah, a Soviet traitor pilot hijacks a thought-driven experimental plane and flies it to a Central-America country that is subsequently bombed by the Americans… in 1996. That’s fine when your novel dates from 1988, but not as fine when your latest novel maintains that it all happened, while trying to integrate increasingly realistic real-world elements in the plotline… The Brownverse should diverge, not converge with the real world. (Also see the latest works of Tom Clancy for a further example.)
Four: Downgrade your writing and make it less interesting and far more verbose while ignoring sustained plotting. Whereas Brown’s earlier novels were snappy, exciting, well-paced entertainment, his latest novels seem built around two or three key action scenes each requiring dozens of pages of laborious setup. Whereas his earlier novels moved quickly to the action, his latest are dogged down with useless techno-speak in an unconvincing effort to add more realism. It’s not only tedious, it’s exasperating.
Five: Stick with one plot, book after book. So… hmm… American interests are threatened and foreign forces led by evil generals attack and all hope is lost until one lone high-tech plane comes in and bombs them all away! Sounded good for Flight of the Old Dog. Sounded increasingly worse for Skymasters, Chains of Command, Shadows of Steel and now his latest.
Fatal Terrain is the culmination of these threads, a limp “thriller” that spends too much time setting up and justifying battles than actually describing them. Only a significant character point and one neat concept (the underground airfields) save the book from total failure. As it is, the only thing driving me to read Brown’s subsequent book, The Tin Man, is the promise that it’s based on something totally different. Hey, wish me luck.