Pocket, 1997, 612 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-02318-7
Most techno-thrillers are written from a moderately right-wing perspective. You know the type: Government is strong, government is good, politicians might be corrupt from time to time, but the honorable military shall set them straight. Plain “thrillers” (without the fancy techno-gadgets and usually from a non-military perspective) are more left-wing, with huge governmental conspiracies, paid CIA assassins, routine invasions of piracy and corrupt officials everywhere the protagonists can see.
One could write a pretty respectable Political Science / English Literature thesis on the political tendencies of modern thriller fiction. And one book almost certain to be included in any comparative study, despite its flaws, would be Vince Flynn’s Term Limits.
The novel explicitly differentiate itself from other thrillers by opening up with this quote:
…Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government… it is their Right, it is their Duty, to thrown off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.
A line from some random anarchist author? Hardly. That’s an excerpt of The Declaration of Independence, by Thomas Jefferson.
For a while, Term Limits has the strength of Jefferson’s convictions. In the first few pages, Flynn paints the portrait of a corrupt American government ready to strongarm -even blackmail- lesser congressmen into voting for a controversial budget. Bad-boy National Security Advisor is introduced. Good-boy junior congressman is introduced. Three senior politicians are assassinated.
This is where the novel gets interesting, because in Flynn’s universe, these three politicians deserved to die. Flynn’s protagonist expresses satisfaction at seeing them taken out of the picture. Polls indicate that most Americans couldn’t care less about the death of three Washington fat cats. The so-called “terrorists”’ demands are pretty darn reasonable: A balanced national budget and, later on, term limits for federal politicians.
So far so good. Even though the whiff of personal libertarian politics is pretty strong, there’s a lot to be said for vigorous argumentation of contrarian viewpoints. So the bad guys aren’t bad guys and the good guys aren’t good guys. Strike one for original ambiguity.
Unfortunately, this moment soon passes, and more assassinations are committed, though this time the targets are far less deserving than the three original victims. As modus operantis doesn’t exactly match, it becomes obvious that there are copycat terrorists. But who are they? And what’s their purpose?
That’s where Term Limits loses a lot of interest, becoming yet another routine race-against-time-and-terrorists like we’ve seen so many times before. Everyone get what they deserve. The End.
The initial political specificity of Term Limits never disappears, but the impression is that it’s been sidestepped in favor of some rather more conventional thriller dynamics. The interesting issues of the beginning are ignored until they progressively disappear in the background.
At least the writing is clear -if a bit clunky in character exposition-, the protagonists suitably sympathetic and the pacing remains brisk, so that even apolitical readers will enjoy the book as solid entertainment. But those who expected an absorbing new take on american politics are bound to be disappointed after the first hundred pages, because Flynn can’t be bothered to explore the questions that he himself raises.
Perhaps he’s waiting for a Political Science / English Literature major to do it…