Goliath, Steve Alten

Forge, 2002, 416 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30064-8

(Read in French as Goliath, translated by Marie Claude Elsen)

It must be a rotten time, in these early years of the twenty-first century, to be a techno-thriller writer. For decades, the Cold War provided a stable framework in which to set tales of global domination and intrepid freedom-loving heroes. Then, during the nineties, relative global quiet allowed them a few good years of stability battling drug cartels and (then) fictional terrorists. But even as the Bush administration seems to be engaged in a long campaign to secure everyone’s New American Century (whether they want it or not), techno-thrillers are being strangled by the incertitude. It’s no longer possible for anyone to depend on geo-political alliances that will last more than a few years, or long enough for the novel to make it to paperback. Anything can happen, and since November 2000, it seems as if just about anything has.

No longer is it possible to write an explicitly post-September-11 novel taking place in 2009 in which Baghdad is destroyed by American nuclear weapons. Or rather; it might have seemed like a good idea when I started reading Steve Alten’s Goliath, but it didn’t seem nearly so amusing by the time I finished it, as real bombs were falling over the real city, killing real people despite unreal news reports. But let’s not turn this into (yet another) dreary case of literary criticism turned political diatribe Truth is, there’s a lot to like and to skewer in Goliath, even when you shove aside the politics and the economics of starving techno-thriller writers.

Take, for instance, how Alten stuffs his usual motifs in his latest novel. It’s not enough for “Goliath” to be an incredibly powerful submarine being controlled by a renegade scientist and a pre-sentient artificial intelligence. The submarine is shaped like a Manta Ray, and its smaller submarine drones look like… sharks. After Alten’s previous Meg and The Trench, which featured giant sharks and impressive underwater wildlife details, it’s not as if he’s stretching.

This being said, Alten has obviously read a lot of military thrillers: his heart is definitely at the first place and so is his imagination. While the technical exactitude of the novel often seems stretched beyond any reasonable measure at times, Alten is first and foremost an entertainer, and he certainly delivers the goods. The opening chapter features the spectacular destruction of an American carrier group, and the action scene that details the escape of the sole survivor is as exciting as anything I remember reading in the genre recently.

Alas, Alten isn’t as skilled when comes the time to add Science Fiction in the mix. The SF-themed sections of Goliath, featuring yet another AI that flips out and wants to eradicate humanity, read like an intentional take-off on Frankenstein (Oooh, that lightning-strikes scene! It’s ALIIIVE!) mixed with a bio-mechanical monsters that seems poorly stolen from the the awful movie VIRUS. Everything’s just too easy to this mad scientist, able to design several Manhattan-sized projects single-handedly. (I can only guess it’s true when they say that being evil gives you extraordinary powers.)

There are also problems with the narrative arc of the novel. The background relationship between protagonists Rochelle Jackson and Gunnar Wolfe are mostly useless, and so is Jackson’s presence in the opening of the novel. Alten succumbed to the usual lure of making everything interconnected, making the universe of his novel look much smaller than it ought to be.

But sacrificing plausibility, be it in domains like military technology, scientific accuracy, characterization or geopolitical politics, can be forgiven if the result is interesting. And for all of its faults (and the slight last-third lull), Goliath delivers the goods when it comes to pure reading fun. So maybe, despite changing geopolitics, there’s hope for techno-thrillers after all. If the current world situation doesn’t make any sense, maybe they don’t have to either.

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