Meltdown, James Powlik

Dell, 2000, 445 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-23509-X

I remember reading James Powlik’s first novel, Sea Change, with some interest but not much enthusiasm. It was a solid, competent thriller with good sequences featuring familiar elements. Some silliness here and there, but nothing bad enough to make anyone stop reading. In other words, a thoroughly adequate thriller.

Meltdown doesn’t step too far off the mark set by Powlik’s first novel.

At least it has (for this Canuck reviewer) the added interest of taking place in Canada. In Canada’s extreme North, mind you (somewhere at large of Baffin Island), but in Canada nonetheless. The prologue bashes Canada’s treatment of its Inuit population, there’s one amusing reference to Ottawa’s Sparks street and the Canadian Coast Guard gets to be mentioned a few times, but otherwise it doesn’t matter much: Meltdown is simply set in a cold and desolate location where something very bizarre is about to happen.

In the first few pages of the novel, two divers are severely affected by a short dive in glacial waters. Suffering from an extreme form of radiation poisoning, they die within hours, prompting their colleagues to call for help. If you’ve read Sea Change, you may already expect a certain someone, and you won’t be disappointed: Brock Garner, renegade oceanographer extraordinaire, is more than willing to answer distress calls from a beautiful woman, especially if she just happens to be his very own ex-wife Dr. Carlon Harmon. (Yes, there’s still something between them.) Before long, he’s on a plane headed north, having packed both his long johns and his advanced oceanographic gadgets.

What he discovers up there is alarming enough: massive radiation contamination, with drastic effects on everything it touches. Left unchecked, this terrible environmental disaster could heat up the Gulf Stream (or something like that) and usher in a new Ice Age. What is the source of the contamination? What can be done to stop it? And how is Brock going to escaped unharmed from everything that’s sure to happen to him in a thriller?

To be fair, Meltdown starts with an intriguing mystery and milks a lot of interest out of the source of the radioactive spill. Is it natural or man-made? Accidental or intentional? Civilian or military? Water is the great unifier, and so Powlik’s novel is a grand excuse to learn a little bit about tons of subjects, from radioactivity to metal-eating bacteria to secret military catastrophes. Techno-thriller fans; welcome, please enjoy the book.

Unfortunately, there’s a palpable lessening of tension once the source of the radiation is identified. Silly little side-plots mixing Chinese (or is it Indian?) spies and super-absorbing molecules start appearing suddenly with various degrees of effectiveness. I quite liked one unfortunate accident three-quarter of the way in, but the latter half of the novel was uneven, sometimes grabbing my interest and sometimes not. The ending is a bit too tidy: I happen to believe that eco-catastrophes can’t be solved with a magical silver bullet; unfortunately, that seems to be the case here. (Amusingly enough, while Sea Change had an ominous epilogue, it doesn’t appear to be the case with Meltdown. Another case of an author settling for easy answer in order to stretch a series of thrillers? We’ll see.)

Still, the book is easy enough to read, and there’s plenty of fascinating asides to satisfy any beach reader. Some vivid action scenes stand out despite the uneven nature of the narrative. The characters may be unpolished, but they’re efficient at moving the action along and don’t torture themselves endlessly with moral dilemmas. It would be helpful if Powlik could sustain interest in both his plot and his characters, but Meltdown isn’t particularly worse than Sea Change. (Indeed, reviewing my notes on the previous novel, it looks as if Meltdown isn’t quite as silly as the first book, which is already something.) I may not be overly enthusiastic about Powlik’s oeuvre so far, but I’m not repelled either; if nothing else, I’m more than willing to try his next effort. After all, if nothing else, I’m a sucker for tons of techno-jargon.

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