Berkley, 1998, 287 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-17301-1
Before proceeding any further, let’s clear something up right away: Yes, this Robert Louis Stevenson is a descendant of Treasure Island‘s Robert Louis Stevenson. Reading Bright Star, it’s hard to avoid thinking that if Stevenson I was alive today, he’d write techno-thrillers. But then again, maybe Herman Melville would be writing military fiction set on an aircraft carrier, so who knows?
Bright Star is an unabashed sea adventure, mixing high-tech gadgets, military operations, political intrigue and a dash of romance. It’s not really successful, but at least it’s short and to the point, which is somewhat of a rarity in today’s bloated thriller market.
It starts promisingly enough, as a revolutionary high-energy orbital weapon system is demonstrated to the American military. They want it in orbit as soon as possible, but they better be patient, given that the shuttle transporting the satellite is quickly hijacked and sent to the bottom of the ocean. A rescue mission is unsuccessful in retrieving the weapon, so soon enough the hunt is on to retrieve the missing weapon.
Technically sophisticated readers may arch their eyebrows at the above plot summary, with good reason: landing a shuttle in the ocean, from orbit, would seem to be an entirely inefficient strategy if the goal is to retrieve even parts of the shuttle intact. (There’s a reason why landing gear exist, and another that passenger aircrafts pretty much never survive an attempted sea landing; at even waterskiing speeds, water becomes roughly equivalent to a brick wall!) Furthermore, the hijacking of a sophisticated weapon is useless unless the weapon is backed by a sufficient architecture, which either implies terrorists (ridiculous) or a foreign power, which logically leads to a de facto declaration of war.
The least we can say is that Bright Star isn’t really big on plausibility. It gets worse and worse throughout the novel, as our deep-diving protagonist is thrown from one contrived situation to another in which he’ll have to use his best diving skills to save the fate of the world! Bright Star is a lot like those cheap TV series where the protagonists are in a position to use their special capabilities over and over again (to quote the Simpsons, “We now return to Nightboat: the Crime-Solving Boat. Every week there’s a canal. Or an inlet. Or a fjord.” [“Maggie Makes Three”]) Here, everything eventually revolves around diving. When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail…
I can normally forgive a lot of implausibility if I can believe in the rest of the novel, but that’s not the case here: The protagonists are macho, unbelievable, needlessly tortured and constantly horny. I’m not sure which worldview Stevenson is espousing, but the attitude of his male characters towards women was more creepy than endearing. The rest of their psychology doesn’t fare much better. Many of them die with scarcely a twinge of sympathy from us.
Overall, that’s pretty much how I also feel about the whole novel. While there are intriguing elements here and there, the one-solution-fits-all plotting, the sinister characters and the indifferent prose all combine to produce a curiously flat techno-thriller. Bright Star isn’t particularly well-written; there are several interesting scenes that fail to take fire even as they should, because everything is described without panache or precision.
Too bad, really.
(I should probably note that Bright Star is a sequel of sort to Stevenson’s previous Torchlight, which I haven’t read. The wealth of back-story referred to in this second volume is voluminous enough to suggest that Bright Star might be improved by reading the first tome.)