ClearWater, Bill Buchanan

Berkley, 2000, 475 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-17364-X

There is something about technothrillers—their disregard for literary values, their techno-fetishism and their infallible sense of right and wrong—that simply makes me comfortable. Some people read romance to reassure their world-view; I reach for techno-thrillers. It’s not a political thing (as a Canadian, most of my American readers will easily lump me in the “liberal” end of the spectrum) but it is definitely an ideological preference: I like technology, I’m fascinated by political/military matters and from time to time, I wish that the world wasn’t as messy as it actually is.

So to me, even very average technothrillers like Bill Buchanan’s ClearWater possess a value that, say, average romance novels won’t. While other readers may slog through this novel without much enthusiasm, I’m quite willing to forgo traditional dramatic values if Buchanan’s willing to pack in one more cool gadget.

Certainly, there isn’t anything wrong with ClearWater‘s premise: In the near future (the novel takes place in 2008) the US has developed a way to track submarines around the globe, wherever they may be. (Well, as long as they’re no deeper than a hundred meters, which is standard operating depths for most submarines anyway) The impacts of this innovation are far-reaching and highly unsettling for smaller countries without defence for this technology. One of them reacts, and hijacks an American submarine with the intention of using its offensive capabilities to attack targets around the Pacific Rim. Naturally enough, this causes everyone to race against the clock…

Let’s make it very clear from the onset that there isn’t much in terms of characterisation here. There’s an evil antagonist, a few protagonists and most of the time, their characterisation is dictated by the demands of their moral alignment and their job. It’s a telling thing when the back-cover jacket blurb doesn’t even mention a character’s name… As with many thrillers of the genre, humans are pieces to move on the game-board, not characters worth exploring in their own right. In fact, whenever Buchanan attempts to deal with human emotions, he either doesn’t succeed, turns to cynical clichés or abandons his efforts well before they can succeed.

What’s eventually more frustrating is the plot. While the first half is well-handled, things begin to disintegrate in the second, as the ClearWater technology turns to be somewhat extraneous to the plot (you can remove it and, yes, the novel suffers a bit, but not that much), the hijacking of the submarine turns out to have a tenuous relation to something else, some long-awaited payoffs are glossed over and the ending doesn’t conclude anything as much as it winds down to a stop, leaving a considerable amount of loose ends still untied. (Or dismissed with a casual “but that’s another story”) I’m not sure if Buchanan sort of lost interest in his own story (heck, he even skips over a whole ground war!) or if it was something he’d planned all along, but ClearWater‘s resolution is one of the most unsatisfying I’ve read recently.

I could also quibble about the lack of dramatic focus around clearly-identified protagonists, an unpleasant scene about women in submarines (maybe realistic, but I didn’t care for it) and the relative incapacity of the “good guys” to do anything. (Indeed, save for a few occasions, it looks that most of the “lucky breaks” come from mishaps, mistakes and sheer luck rather than their actions.)

No matter: While I wasn’t much impressed by ClearWater (no cool scenes, tell-not-show and a definite lack of dramatic tension are my main problems), I’m not terribly disappointed either. It’s got one or two good ideas, and that -plus the genre comfort factor- makes it a worthwhile read. You may have a very different take on the subject, though…

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