Doubleday, 2002, 385 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-50668-6
It would be easy to make a wisecrack about how theme park are like catnip for techno-thriller authors, but that would be designating Michael Crichton as “all techno-thriller authors”. It’s not because the guy has made a career writing about theme parks, from WESTWORLD to Jurassic Park, that one has to tar an entire genre with the same brush.
Still, when Lincoln Child decided on a theme park as the setting of his first solo effort, he had to be aware that reviewers around the world would use Crichton’s oeuvre as a lead-in to their reviews. So there we are.
Chances are that you have already read something at least co-written by Child: Douglas Preston and him are, after all, responsible for some of the best-selling thrillers of the past decade, The Relic to The Cabinet of Curiosities. What was stopping them from branching off on their own? Why, nothing, and so Child had Utopia out on the shelves in late 2002. (With a very attractive cover illustration which, might I add, shares a non-coincidental look with Swarz and Watkins’s Power Failure. But that’s an observation best left to cover design geeks such as myself.)
As a thriller, it couldn’t dream of a better setting: Set deep in the Nevada desert within the imaginary theme park of Utopia, Utopia begins as robotic expert Andrew Warne is invited at the park to fix a few persistent problems with the robotic equipment. No, no, the novel has nothing to do with robots taking over the place: you can calm down. It’s merely an excuse to get Warne in place as terrorists make a well-coordinated assault on Utopia. The novel (save for the prologue and epilogue) takes place over a single day packed with thrill-rides, chases and explosions.
As a setting, Utopia is a whole lot of fun: Child takes an obvious delight in showing us how theme park operate, which is fortunate given how this kind of techno-fetishism detail is exactly what readers likely to pick up Utopia are looking for. Divided in four parts (Gaslight/Victorian, Camelot/Medieval, Callisto/Futuristic and Boardwalk/Beachfront, though most of the story takes place in the futuristic “Callisto” area), the park attracts thousands of visitors per day, depends on the latest technology, makes tons of money, employs thousands of people, bla-bla-blah… The behind-the-scenes details betray either extensive research or a convincing imagination, but there’s not much to complain about given how it’s the setup of the novel. It’s like slipping back in a comfortable story-telling mode. Crichton fans, to name an obvious market segment, are unlikely to be disappointed.
Things heat up a little bit more when Something Happens and the management of the park receive instructions from carefully-prepared terrorists. They want something, they’re ready to prove how evil they are, they’re obviously getting information from someone on the inside and so the games begin.
Alas, the novel is never quite as good as its setting suggests. The final goal of the villains seems laughably pedestrian, especially considering the amount of complicated preparations they undertake to achieve their goals when simpler ways to get to it existed. The identity of the traitor can safely be guessed from the very first scenes. The book’s killer-app technology, perfect holography, is used in exactly the same way it’s been used on countless cheap TV series with scarcely any technological believability. Even the pacing of the novel seems to stretch on forever by the end, even as it should go a little bit faster.
Don’t get the impression that any of this is a catastrophe: if nothing else, Utopia delivers the kind of summertime thriller-reading experience the name “Lincoln Child” has become (half) known for. But there’s something disappointing in putting down the novel and muttering something about how it could have been much better. Hardly essential but, hey, there’s always the next Preston&Child collaboration…