The Ice Limit, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Warner, 2000, 449 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-446-52587-1

This is a novel about a rock. Not just any ordinary rock, mind you: For one thing, this one weighs a few thousand tons. For another, it’s most probably not from around here, being exceptionally dense, of blood-red color and unbreakable by conventional means. It’s also located on Isla Desolacion, a forsaken island in Argentinean territory. For most of these reason, this is an exceptionally valuable rock, and our billionaire-protagonist wants it for his museum. One last detail: That rock has the unfortunate tendency to zap lighting bolts into people.

Even if you don’t really like Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s thrillers, you’ve got to hand it to them; they know how to come up with an irresistible premise. From the monster-loose-in-the-museum premise of The Relic to the monsters-loose-under-New-York story in Reliquary, they’ve upped the ante with each successive novel. If the expression “hack writers” didn’t have such unpleasant connotation, that’s what we could call them; they write to mass-market specifications, turning out perfectly competent thrillers with adequate characters, fluid writing, good technical details and a structure calculated to deliver steadily more shocking jolts. Hey, it’s a bestselling living.

As it is, the plot of The Ice Limit is immediately gripping. A meteorite-hunter is hired by a billionaire in order to head an expedition to bring back The Rock to the United States. Given the unusual nature of the object, the novel then introduces one very unusual team, a wonderfully reclusive engineering business (ESS) specialized in huge-scale projects, from volcano manipulation to the re-creation of JFK’s real death. ESS is The Ice Limit‘s real delight, such an intriguing creation that I could easily a series of stories built around that company. But then again, I’ve always been a sucker for engineering fiction.

In any case, the plan to bring back The Rock quickly sets into motion. A boat is built, then heavily modified and disguised by ILM. a sexy female scientist is introduced. Argentinean officials have to be bribed, except one who vows a terrible revenge. The teams arrives at Isla Desolation.

More people die. Secrets are uncovered. More people die.

It’s been said before, but a fundamental difference between techno-thrillers and science-fiction is how the author reacts to change. Science-Fiction usually adopts the attitude that “the genie is out of the bottle” and that we’d better adapt to change because change isn’t going away. Techno-thrillers, on the other hand, often shoo away the upsetting change, burying, destroying, ignoring it in the hope that the day after, everything comes back to normal.

And, unfortunately, -without going in details-, that’s pretty much what happens in The Ice Limit, which nearly ends up being one of the most depressing thrillers I’ve read in a while. The massive body count and ultimate futility of the exercise brings to mind authors handshaking over an agreement that “some things are not meant to be known by humankind”—and that hardheaded engineers are doomed. This attitude is partially redeemed (saving the book from an awful ending) by a last-minute twist that will be familiar with the weirder speculations of British scientist Fred Hoyle. (How’s that for a literate spoiler? Don’t think too much about it.)

Fortunately, the rest of the book is pretty good, and compulsively readable. The characters do the job for which they were created, and The Rock ensures a massive presence over the whole story. The engineering firm, as mentioned previously, is a wonderful creation I’d like to see elsewhere. It’s unfortunate that the end sucks off a lot of the novel’s energy, but feel free to skip the last fifty pages and imagine a better ending for yourself. At least that’ll entertain you until Preston and Child deliver their next thriller.

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