Unit Omega, Jeff Rovin as Jim Grand

Berkley, 2003, 277 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-19321-7

As the year grinds down to a halt during the December holidays and as I reflect on the number of books I have read and reviewed this year, I find myself fascinated not by a big thick meaty masterpiece, but by a trifle of a thriller.  Part of the attraction is due to surprise: Packaged as wide-scale military fiction, Unit Omega turns out to be a small science-heavy adventure that almost works better when its two protagonists are just talking to each other.  It’s charming and refreshing, and it’s completely unlike what I was expecting when I purchased the book.

Unsurprisingly, I got it from a used book store: Long out of print and now unavailable except through specialized sellers, Unit Omega was apparently published in late 2003 and quickly sank without a trace shortly thereafter, leaving in its wake a scant six customer reviews on amazon.com.  None of them were particularly positive, much of the hostility having to do with a misleading cover promising military action from a United Nation unit specializing in “investigating unusual scientific phenomena”. (“The military is facing an enemy like none ever seen before.”)

The true nature of the novel, after a perfunctory mysterious prologue, quickly becomes something of a laugh.  Because the “unusual scientific phenomena” unit of the United Nation ends up being one lone young scientist holed up in the basement of the United Nations headquarters in New York, idly contemplating writing science-fiction novels on the job while his putative boss tries to get him a real budget.  Harold Collins is bright and enthusiastic about pushing back the frontiers of science, but he’s stuck in a miserable situation.  Opportunity strikes when a phone call is patched to his office: A once-respectable scientist has reason to believe that the Loch Ness legend has a grain of truth to it and wants a third-party to investigate what she has found.  Bored out of his mind, Collins spends his yearly travel budget on a trip to Scotland, and manages to convince a young and attractive magazine editor to come along.

Number of transatlantic flights spent stuck in coach: One.  Number of military helicopters in the novel: Zero.

Their investigation unfolds as a deliciously low-tech affair, with consumer-grade camera equipment and wet suits rented from the local dive shop.  The plot is just as threadbare: Collins does discover something, figures out what it is and comes back.  A comfy epilogue quickly follows, complete with the promise of another novel in the series.  If you were expecting explosions, fighter jets or even a military uniform, you may spare yourself some trouble and reset your expectations accordingly: Unit Omega is one of those rare techno-thrillers with no military involvement whatsoever.

It’s best to call it low-grade science-fiction: The “Loch Ness anomaly” is a natural scientific phenomenon, implausible but generally well-developed.  The protagonist seems to have absorbed the ideas and attitude of classic genre Science Fiction, and a shortened version of his simple adventure wouldn’t have felt out-of-place in as a novelette in Analog magazine.  As far as I’m concerned, that’s part of the appeal: Collins is a likable nerd, and his budding romance with his travel companion (obviously designed to reach fruition much later in the proposed series) is conventional but entertaining.

In fact, most of Unit Omega is just plain fun to read.  The undermining of the “elite United Nation unit” trope is fit for giggles and the novel plays up those subverted expectations throughout the rest of the narrative.  As a story, it has a substantially more likable personality than the usual generic military thrillers it’s meant to evoke, and it reminded me of the kind of boyish adventures that SF used to do so well.  It’s not, in other words, a particularly deep or meaningful novel… but it’s rewarding and memorable in its own fashion.

It’s worth noting that “Jim Grand” is really (as per the Copyright page) Jeff Rovin, a professional writer with one of the most diverse bibliographies you’re likely to see.  It’s a shame that he doesn’t seem to have a permanent web presence: I’d love to read him talk about his work, and how he manages to write a few books per year.  Unit Omega has exactly one follow-up to date, the similarly mis-marketed Operation Medusa published a month later.  I think I’ll start lurking in used book store to find a copy.

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