Richter 10, Arthur C. Clarke and Mike McQuay

Bantam Spectra, 1996, 407 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-57333-0

Criticism is many things to many people, but most readers assume that the review will contain at least a fragmentary plot resume, and a brief critical opinion. Most readers prefer when the opinion is decisive: (It sucks!)/(It rules!) are the two binary states of criticism.

The object of this review, Richter 10, isn’t a book that lets itself be so easily dismissed.

First, it’s a Clarke, but a Clarke collaboration. All Clarke collaborations, without exception, have been horrendous. Benford’s sequel to Against the Fall of Night was simply indigestible. The “Rama” trilogy was overlong and under-whelming. And now, as Clarke explains in the after-word, Richter 10 isn’t even a collaboration: McQuay wrote the book based on a 850-word movie outline by Clarke.

Briefly put, Richter 10 is the tale of Lewis Crane, a brilliant scientist with an obsessive passion: Earthquakes. As the book opens, Crane has perfected a method for predicting earthquakes and their effects: He literally marks down “safe” areas. The book follows the successes and failures of Crane: Scientifically, sentimentally, financially, the guy’s in for a rough time.

The good news are that it’s half a decent tale: The book is readable fairly quickly despite the 400+ pages-length. There is a clear narrative drive: What will happen next? Turn the page to find out!

However, the book has serious believability problems. Suspension of disbelief is handy for most SF, but Richter 10 takes it a little bit too far. Shaky elements include a simulation able to perfectly recreate earth’s geological history, a near-magical arm injury, a woman living her whole life as a man, Chinese corporations ruling the USA, a plan to end earthquakes, a scientist-cum-religious leader, ten years in total isolation, a virtual lover taking over a person’s life, etc… “Hard to swallow” is an understatement, and the situation isn’t helped by a mostly dystopic vision of the future.

There also seems to be a focus problem with the book. The first three quarters of the tale are recognizably the same story. But the books shifts in high gear for the finale, leaving characters quickly sketched and readers quickly breathless. At times, it almost seems as if a whole trilogy has been compressed in one book. (This might not be a bad thing, if the alternative was to actually read the trilogy.)

Finally, perhaps the biggest “problem” with the book is that most characters behave in ways that will displease average readers. While it’s fun to see characters go from lover to villain to friend, it’s also a bit unsettling. Readers beware. Overly paranoid readers will also detect a strong anti-Islamic bent to the book. The scientific method as depicted in this book is also a throwback to the (bad) old days of SF, where the lone maverick hero defended his (*His!*) invention against hordes of infidels.

Much as earthquakes completely transform the territory they affect, Richter 10‘s tone, atmosphere and characters undergo several dramatic transformations during the course of the novel. Whether this is ingenious or plain unfortunate remains to be seen. Richter 10 is a moderately entertaining tale, the kind of book best taken to the beach for a few hours of quiet, undemanding reading.

Unless, of course, you happen to go to a Californian beach…

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