Deep Storm, Lincoln Child

Doubleday, 2007, 370 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-51550-4

Long-suffering regular readers of these reviews are probably aware of my fascination for genre boundaries, and books that look as if they work according to a particular set of genre protocols but actually end up working from another set of rules. Sometimes it’s clever genre-bending, sometimes it’s sheer cluelessness for inexperienced authors. Sometimes, too, it’s simply hammering a cool but unusual story in a framework that faithful fans are ready to accept.

So it is that Lincoln Child’s Deep Storm, for the longest time, is a textbook example of a techno-thriller that eventually twists itself in a science-fiction loop before disappearing in a puff of mainstream cowardice. It’s half a superb book, and half a middling one.

Warning; a full discussion of the book requires spoilers. Readers sensitive to untimely revelations about the novel’s ultimate nature may want to skip ahead to the last paragraph of this review.

As a genre reader, I must admit that I am in awe of the book’s first section, which sets up a mystery, then brings a capable protagonist to a remote high-tech environment in order to gradually learn about that mystery. As a techno-thriller element, it’s a well-worn plot device: The hero flies into a new environment, gets a guided tour and gradually learns a few things that don’t make sense. As the story and the threat both develop, the mystery is revealed in time for everyone to run for their lives.

In Deep Storm‘s case, the prologue sets up a deep-sea drilling operation that produces unexpected results. Nearly two years later, medical specialist Peter Crane is flown on-board the deep-sea station, then taken down to the new underwater headquarters of a brand-new, ultra-high-tech research station. As you may expect, things aren’t going well: researchers are being driven crazy by some mysterious forces, and there are hints of traitors inside and outside the station.

This hero-visits-research-station plot sequence is deeply embedded in the DNA of the techno-thriller genre, but Child is a reliable professional, and the first hundred pages of Deep Storm have the reassuring hum of well-maintained machinery. It creates anticipation for what’s to come, and sets up (sometimes quite obviously) everything we need to learn in the adventures to come.

The mystery at the heart of Deep Storm (LAST WARNING: HUGE SPOILERS) is actually quite intriguing: There’s a cache of alien weapons hidden under the Earth’s crust, and plenty of ultra-high-tech warning devices buried on top of it. As a science-fictional idea, it sustains scrutiny for about the length of a short story before the holes becomes apparent (such as, well, why not hide weapons in a place that is far less volatile than a geologically active planet with a virulently aggressive biosphere?), but it’s still a neat SF surprise at the heart of what was marketed as a mainstream thriller.

But there’s no fooling experience genre readers: The main difference between techno-thrillers and science-fiction, as genre, is not one of setting but of attitude. If the threatening breakthrough is understood, domesticated and becomes part of the human experience, it’s SF. If it’s destroyed with a naive assurance that no one will put those equations and components together ever again, then it’s a techno-thriller. Deep Storm, nods in the direction of SF with an extra kick in its epilogue, but tips its hand to the mainstream Child fans by destroying the station and the access path to below. To quote a character, “It’s a tragedy, but it’s over now. There’s no need to worry about others accessing the site. No foreign government can approach the dig interface; it’s too heavily irradiated.” [P.368] So it goes.

Genre-definition neepery aside, Deep Storm proves that Child has the thriller-writing business down pat. This is a book that cries out for a movie, and it plays to genre expectations beautifully until it gets stuck with an idea too good for its own intended audience. It may not be entirely satisfying after a moment’s thought, but it’s thrilling beach reading from beginning to end.

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