Impact, Douglas Preston

Forge, 2009, 364 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1768-1

Now that the Preston/Child writing duo has had time to work on their own novels in addition to their collaborations, we’re getting an opportunity to see what are the strengths and weaknesses of either writer.  Lincoln Child, judging from his solo novels from Utopia to Terminal Freeze, is supremely gifted at making up interesting premises.  Unfortunately, his novels have a tendency to turn into far more pedestrian genre exercises by their middle third, and end on intensely familiar notes to either techno-thriller (“The AI did it!”) or Science Fiction (“Aliens!”) fans.  Meanwhile, Douglas Preston seems a bit more versatile, and in-between The Codex to Blasphemy seems interested in a broader range of narrative structures.  Adventure ranks high in his plotting techniques, and if his premises are a bit less clear-cut than his colleague’s own novels, he seems a bit better at sustaining narrative tension throughout.

Impact is clearly another novel from the Child/Preston stable: It’s easily readable, generously paced with action sequences, mysterious from the get-go and seasoned with a blend of technical details.  It’s also structurally flawed, can’t let go of recurring characters and badly inserts SF ideas within a traditional thriller template.

It starts with the titular impact: In costal Maine, a brilliant young woman wasting her potential as a waitress uses elementary astrophysics and her knowledge of the area to deduce that the rock landed on a nearby isolated island, and that there’s money to be made in bringing back a meteorite.  She sets off with a friend and her father’s boat, but not before annoying a young man persuaded that she’s his girlfriend.  In a completely unrelated development, a scientist working in California gets wind of a surprising scientific discovery involving Mars and people who are willing to kill in order to keep it a secret.  Finally, in yet a third completely unrelated subplot, Preston series regular (and all-rounded special operative) Wyman Ford is asked to go investigate a source of mysterious gems in Cambodia.

Those three threads eventually converge, but not as cleanly as you may expect from a top-notch thriller novelist.  It’s one of Impact’s many flaws that the novel is inelegantly split in two parts spaced by weeks, upsetting the kind of tight dramatic unity that we’d expect from a thriller.  Furthermore, it doesn’t help that one of the three initial subplots is quickly cut short, or that there is not real reason to bring back Wyman Ford after the world-changing events of Blasphemy when just about any competent protagonist could have done the job.

(It’s a pet peeve of mine that the thriller genre is rarely suited to series: to be meaningful, thrillers developments should have consequences.  You can’t threaten the world with nuclear war every novel of the series, for instance, and the high-impact shenanigans at the end of high-stakes thrillers should leave a mark on the characters, and often the world at large.  What bad thriller continuity series does is press the reset button, not even acknowledging that what was important in the previous book is still important now.  Wynan Ford’s previous adventure Blasphemy ended with a global revelation that isn’t even mentioned here.  There’s an even bigger global revelation in Impact, and I’m practically certain that one of Preston’s next novel will once again feature Ford, and once again ignore Impact’s impact.)

While Impact does introduce a sympathetic heroine with Abbey and has the good idea of pairing her up with Ford, the novel seems too loose to be fully satisfying.  The subplots go here and there (Ford’s trip to Cambodia start out promisingly, then peters off in traditional heroics), the book can’t make up its mind whether it’s best suited to the rocky grit of New England or techno-scientific brinksmanship in Washington DC.  The last quarter of the novel features world-changing SF concepts, but Preston shies away from exploring their consequences in favour of well-worn thriller tricks.

It results in a disappointing novel, full of promise but let down by a loose, almost chaotic execution.  Impact has lengthy periods of boredom in-between the interesting ideas, and it always feels as if there’s something not quite right in the way those ideas and concepts are developed.  Science Fiction fans may have a worst time with the books than those who aren’t as used to SF conventions: Like many authors working outside the SF genre, Preston doesn’t quite understand how to develop premises with world-changing potential, and maddeningly focuses on the wrong end of the story in an effort to hold the hands of his general readership.  Even Preston’s usual audience may not feel that this is his best work.

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