H.M.S. Unseen, Patrick Robinson

Harper, 1999, 526 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-109801-9

There are times where I seriously wonder if reading more than 170 books a year is somehow rotting my mind. Why else to explain peculiar attachment to authors I don’t care about? H.M.S. Unseen is Patrick Robinson’s third novel and freakishly obsessive readers of my reviews will remember that I haven’t liked either Nimitz Class or Kilo Class very much. Robinson writes badly, has no gift for effective characterization, doesn’t know how to structure his stories and has a rather curious sense of global geopolitics. I might have picked up H.M.S. Unseen with the hope that he has improved, but he really hasn’t.

The story is a loose follow-up to Nimitz Class in that the terribly anticlimactic death of the first novel’s antagonist is revealed to be the sham we suspected all along. Ben Adnam is back in action, but maybe not as smoothly as he wants to: The first few dozen pages of H.M.S. Unseen describe how the Iraqi government decides to get rid of their most troublesome agent, and how Adman escapes through marshes and deserts to join Iran’s government. His proposition? To exact revenge, he will frame Iraq for a series of devastating terrorist attacks.

I’d say “so far so good” if it was the case, but it isn’t. Early on, all of Robinson’s usual faults come back to haunt us. He can’t write. Still. Clumsy exposition drowns out dialogue to such an extent that there isn’t any dialogue left. His sense of dramatic structure is shaky at best; events happen out of nowhere without preparation and then he’ll spend dozens of pages on the most insignificant details before kicking the plot in an entirely different direction again. The downing of the experimental plane is a perfect case in point; what could have been milked for drama simply becomes another plot point without too much importance. But, oh, Adnam’s Scottish escape becomes a marathon of tiny details we couldn’t possibly care about, given that we know he will do it.

After three connected novels, I still can’t care about one single character in Robinson’s oeuvre. He tries to make an antihero of his terrorist villain, but it comes across as just… insipid. Late in the book, he tried to make me pity the antagonist (aw, looove… and it just so happens that the girl is now married to the protagonist of the first two novels!), but my only wish remained for the bad guy to irrevocably die so that I could move on to other things.

More and more, it looks like Robinson simply has no clue about what makes a good technothriller, whether it’s the tiny (oh; the writing, maybe?) or the grand. On an overarching level, I just can’t believe in what Robinson does. Late in HMS Unseen, for instance, Adman encourages the United States to destroy -with cruise missiles!- a large dam in Iraq, killing thousands of civilians, setting back Iraq a few decades in hydro-electrical capacity and, oh, provoking a major international incident in the process. (The characters pooh-pooh such objections as “we’ll be caught!”) Utterly unbelievable, especially in a context where the States are already being unjustly blamed for “hundred of children dying every day because of sanctions”. Now imagine actually destroying a dam. I was practically screaming at the novel “No, you moron! Leave the civilian targets alone!” No such luck.

The structure of the novel is even more insipid, bouncing from situation to situation without a sense of heightened stakes. The final few pages are emblematic of the problem, as the villain is dispatched almost with a yawn and a wave of the hand. Almost as if by then, Robinson hated his novel as much as I did.

Still, you got to hand it to the guy. To be able to publish three awful novels in a row (and to get me to read’em) takes a special skill. You know what? I’m almost certain I’ll read his fourth. I might spend my time cursing at it and muttering dark promises of retribution, but at least it’ll be more entertaining than reading, say, yet another dull and tired Dale Brown B-52 fantasy.

Egad. Maybe I am brain-damaged after all.

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