Harper Collins, 1997, 411 pages, C$35.50 hc, ISBN 0-06-018755-7
Have you ever bitten in a tasty apple, only to discover that it was rotten at the core? How about at book that degenerates as it goes on? Michael Crichton’s Sphere is one of those rotten apples, beginning with a competent SF mystery, continuing with a good underwater thriller, but ending with a deus ex machina too insulting to even contemplate again. (And so they decided it was all a dream! And soon to be a movie!)
With Nimitz Class never approaches the stinky depths at which Sphere sank, it remains that the sum of the novel doesn’t fulfil the promise of the first two hundred pages.
It starts promisingly enough, with a good, ominous description of one of the most formidable war machine ever built: A Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. A few characters are efficiently set up… but then the rug is pulled from under out feet: Before the second chapter is over, all the aforementioned characters are vaporized, along with the carrier. A tad over 6,000 deaths. Accidental nuclear explosion, or deliberate attack?
Enters Bill Baldridge, nuclear engineer. His brother Jack was on the carrier when it was destroyed, and Bill doesn’t quite think it was accidental. The hunt for the culprits begins.
As mentioned, the first two hundred pages of Nimitz Class are first-rate military fiction. The plot is developed nicely, and Bill Baldridge is sufficiently different from the usual military hero to be interesting. Author Robinson takes us places we couldn’t otherwise visit: In this case, the British submarine base where the Perisher course is given.
But then the novel goes awry.
Just as Baldridge begins to have a clear idea of who could possibly sink the carrier, the narrative goes on an unexpected direction. This fifty-page detour would have been interesting (and is at times very spectacular) if it would have been integrated in the fabric of the plot. But it’s not, or not enough. Then the novel goes on another tangent. Another exciting scene follows. Then, as things finally seem to pull in together, when our heroes are about to piece up the mystery and find out where the evil terrorist is hiding… They get an anonymous tip, follow the tip and blow up the bad guys.
Very anticlimactic. Add to this an unconvincing romantic thread and the result is a novel that’s more than a little disappointing. I’ve rarely seen an author lose control of a plot so much: Come on, I don’t want a man-to-man fight between the hero and the antagonist, but at least give me a satisfying finish! Cut the SEAL action, crop the channel scene, give the hero a believable romantic interest, but sheesh…
Technically, the prose is okay despite more than a few odd bits of exposition in dialogue. Robinson loves to have his characters talk in multiple paragraphs. (At random: Page 114… same page which contains my favourite excerpt of the book: “Sh*t”, said the President. (after three paragraphs of exposition. The following two paragraphs are more exposition, and then: “J*s*s Chr*st”, said the President. Pop quiz: Is the President under stress?) Okay, so I have low thresholds for favourite exerts.)
Nimitz Class’s faults are even more disappointing in that they torpedo (ha-ha) what could have otherwise been an exceptional military thriller. As it stands now, Nimitz Class is barely worth a library loan. In paperback.