Jove, 1999, 460 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-515-12713-2
Devastating earthquakes in North America. Only in California, you say? Not necessarily: The New Madrid Seismic Zone has fascinated geologists for years, especially given the documented evidence of a massive series of quakes in that area in 1811 and 1812. According to some, the new Madrid fault will shake again soon. If it does, it’s going to move along most of the American Midwest from Ohio to Mississippi, with catastrophic results…
The New Madrid fault is starting to interest disaster novelists too, as demonstrate thrillers like Walter Jon Williams’s The Rift, Michael Reisig’s The New Madrid Run and Peter Hernon’s 8.4. I’ll cover Williams’ mammoth novel eventually, but if you have to pick and choose between one of the three, Hernon’s thriller is a perfectly serviceable illustration of the devastating potential of an earthquake in America’s heartland.
As you might expect from countless disaster stories, 8.4 follows a familiar template of ever-increasing danger, up to the worst disaster —narrowly averted by an audacious last-minute operation. The protagonists are, of course, maverick earthquake specialists whose alarm cries are not taken seriously until the very last moment. It also helps that one of the heroes has been seriously traumatized by an earthquake before: This time… it’s personal!
I barely jest. 8.4 has many fine qualities, but plotting originality isn’t one of them. In many ways, it doesn’t really matter. Despite its newfound attraction for novelists, the New Madrid Fault is new enough that simply showing the effects of a massive series of quakes in the American Midwest can be satisfying enough without resorting to sophisticated narrative techniques. In short, when the special effects are sufficiently spectacular, the characters and story can take a back seat.
It’s a good thing, then, that 8.4 features some awe-inspiring scenes. Early quakes send the content of a graveyard bubbling to the surface. Major cities are trashed. Civil unrest requires the intervention of the army. A dam bursts open. A nuclear device is used. It’s all deliriously thrilling in the best tradition of disaster stories. (No relation with actual plausibility is implied or required.)
Even so, 8.4‘s level of suggested realism is impressively convincing. Not only do the characters talk the talk (often ridiculously so!), but Hernon thoughtfully integrates a few technical diagrams to help the lectures along and provide some graphical conceptualization. Exposition? Heck, we’re talking about a World Fair’s worth of exposition. Geology buffs will lap it up, as will techno-thriller fans used to multiple paragraphs of technical details. (That is, unless they find major mistakes I couldn’t guess at)
Given the above, it’s no surprise if so few characters actually come to life during the course of the novel. Some subplots are superfluous, especially when they don’t involve spectacular sights. We’re supposed to care about a major betrayal late in the book, but at most, the only effect is a nod of acknowledgement from the reader at the expected kink in the plot.
It takes a special kind of reader to appreciate 8.4, mostly the same type of reader which worships hard science-fiction and authentic military thrillers. The indifferent characters definitely hurt the novel, but not as much as you might expect given the awe-inspiring disasters and the interesting details. Peter Hernon delivers a credible description of an upcoming New Madrid earthquake, but if you want a fully satisfying piece of fiction, well, that remains to be read.