Ice Station, Matthew Reilly

St. Martin’s, 1999, 513 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-97123-0

When I write that some writers should be praised for their insane genius, I’m specifically thinking of Matthew Reilly. You can keep paying tribute to your literary prodigies, your award-winning wordsmiths and your tortured artistes: Meanwhile, I’ll be sitting in the corner whooping it up with one of Reilly’s pedal-to-the-metal action thrillers.

Seemingly written for those who think that Hollywood action blockbusters are too slow and sedate, Reilly’s novels explode out of their premises, multiplying action sequences at the carefree expense of believability. It’s as if a Hollywood screenwriter was unleashed from the bounds of budgetary concerns and insurance liability: Suddenly, unbridled excesses and can-you-top-this action sequences become mere chapters in books that delights in exhausting the readers. Reilly’s novel are amoung the best in applying action movie mechanics to the novel form, and while the result won’t be for everyone, it’s a hugely enjoyable way to pass time.

Ice Station may have been Reilly’s first professional publication (Contest was initially self-published; though re-worked and republished later on) but it already showcases Reilly’s characteristic style. Taking place in Antarctica, it initially describes how a team of Marines investigates the mysterious disappearance of nearly all personnel from a US research station. Things soon spiral out of control as the Marines are attacked from all sides: There’s a killer in the station, strange lifeforms in the pool at the bottom of the base, and enemy forces closing in on the surface.

But that’s still mere prelude to the sheer insanity of the novel as it develops all of these threads. Because there’s something very dangerous about Wilkes Station where most of the action takes place: something buried deep in the ice, and something that several governments are clearly ready to fight over… or destroy if they can’t have it.

But geopolitical considerations are mere background information when the shooting begins. Close-combat heroics, hovercraft demolition derbies, mutants, three successive waves of elite attackers, nuclear-powered weaponry and high-tech gadgets are only some of the elements that give Ice Station its hard-edged charm. The characters are secondary at the exception of protagonist Shane “Scarecrow” Schofield (who later goes on to star in three more of Reilly’s novels), but the centerpiece action sequences are very well-done. Reilly’s special genius is that he understands the mechanics of an action sequence: the impossible situations, the small accumulation of mini-objectives, the ratcheting tension in every twist and turn, the cool little ideas that help the protagonists fight their way out of desperate odds…

I suspect that few serious critics will be kind toward Reilly’s work: He does cheat and lie to his readers in order to crank the tension, and the over-the-top ridiculousness of his accumulating action will be lost on anyone who’s not already a fan of kinematic action. But there’s a lot of clever genre-bending in Ice Station, which earns some distinction by being one of the few thrillers to set up an extraterrestrial element, then tops it with an even less likely development that manages to keep the novel in the realm of the techno-thriller.

So, no, Ice Station will never get any respect, but it doesn’t really need any: As a techno-thriller, it wipes the floor with the shattered corpses of most other novels of its genre. Reilly’s talent is in his visceral understanding of what make a story move, both at the sentence-by-sentence and the structural level. He is, not insignificantly, a thriller writer with is own distinctive style, and that should be enough to earn him enough faithful readers to enable him to write whatever he wants. Insane geniuses deserve their own dedicated followers, you know.

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