Arc Light, Eric L. Harry

Simon & Schuster, 1994, 551 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 0-671-88048-9

Though Science Fiction remains my favourite literary genre, there’s a special shelf in my personal library for techno-thrillers, a genre more closely associated with SF that most people assume. If Fantasy is the new-age-ish sister of SF, Techno-thriller is the weird cousin always playing around with guns and borrowing stuff with no intention of ever bringing it back.

Naturally, there’s a whole range of techno-thrillers. At the lowest end, there’s the standard nice-but-unrewarding “Big Weapons, Terrorists, Explosions” plots, but it takes more than a few acronyms, nuclear weapons and middle-eastern villains to make a techno-thrillers. Moving out of Sturgeon’s 90%, we get authors like Tom Clancy, Dale Brown, Harold Coyle and Larry Bond, who write impeccable, believable 500-pages novels that read more like romanced histories of future wars than simple potboilers.

Or, should I say, used to write such novels. Clancy has moved on to other things: His three latest novels have been disappointing for a number of reasons, spin-off products are diluting the “Tom Clancy” trademark and his latest fiction has been steadily skewing toward the political rather than the military end of the techno-thriller spectrum. Harold Coyle’s two latest novels have been about the Civil War. Bond and Brown’s latest offerings are markedly duller than their predecessors.

Now here’s Eric L. Harry, with an invigorating novel of nuclear war between post-Cold War USA and Russia.

Arc Light begins with nuclear war. Barely a hundred pages in the novel, the deed is done: a limited nuclear strike has devastated both countries. While no major civilian centers are hit, the military capacity of each country is vitally wounded: one of the book’s subplots follows the ordeal of two servicemen stuck in a nuclear launch silo underneath a blast area. The two governments react differently: Russia toughs it out while the USA impeach their president. (Well… He did contribute somewhat to the war by telling the Chinese that Russia was about to attack them…)

The book goes on from there, topping even a big premise with ever-quirkier plot twists. President Livingstone is judged by the senate, servicemen are called back into service, the USA invades Russia… It all leads to a good techno/military/political thriller. The blurb states that this is the most electrifying debut since Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October and while this hyperbole should be taken with a bucketful of salt, there is at least ground for comparison.

I was especially impressed by the human side of Harry’s novel, which oscillates between maudlin tearjerkers and scenes that just feel right. While the some scenes in the Melissa Chandler subplot are a bit too emotionally cheap, there’s terrific material in the scenes following the soldiers going to war. The variety of the viewpoints is also impressive: Harry doesn’t shy away from covering the action from different perspectives, from strictly military action to top-level political intrigue and espionage hijinks. The characterisation is good enough for the genre: it may not be particularly impressive, but at least it’s there. It helps that even the Russians antagonists are represented with some degree of nuance.

On the flip side, not all subplots are equally interesting and the conclusion is a bit disappointing, in no small part due to the way the author painted himself in a particular corner. A similar situation was handled somewhat better in Joe Weber’s Defcon One.

But overall, I was impressed and I think that most thriller fans will react in the same way. With his debut novel, Harry has already become an author to watch. His second book (Society of the Mind) is in stores now, and it seems to be pushing the techno-thriller genre in another direction, tackling issues about Artificial Intelligence. This type of material coming for a non-Science Fiction writer is always interesting to contemplate: you can be sure that I’ll take a look.