Island, 1999, 494 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-23538-3
There are thrillers and then there are superthrillers.
Thrillers are usually adequate beach reading, stories of evil conspiracies, military skirmishes or criminal affairs. They feature ordinary characters, plot puppets moved by an author writing as fast as he can to ship off the manuscript to his editor and make up payments on his mortgage. Thrillers are entertaining, but not much more; most of them will be undistinguishable only a few weeks after closing the last page. Thrillers abound on the shelves of your local bookstore; just pick’em up and you get instant entertainment.
Superthrillers, on the other hand, are another thing entirely. They are, most noticeably, bigger. Bigger in terms of scope and ambition, not necessarily in terms of stakes or length. They go to fascinating places we’ve never seen before, display prodigious amounts of well-integrated details, involve original gadgets and ideas, feature Cool Scenes and end on a succession of ever-more exciting thrills. Super-thrillers are thrillers that are a magnitude over and above what we can expect from a normal thriller. And Back to the Moon fits this description perfectly.
Oh, it doesn’t start that way. The first hundred pages are fun but oddly reminiscent of other thrillers, as it looks like terrorists are getting ready to take over a shuttle flight. The fun starts when things go wrong and the “terrorists” explain their mission and their motives.
Like other superthrillers, Back to the Moon takes risks that might doom it to failure. It uses Cold War weaponry hidden at an unlikely place, a last-minute revelation, a secret conspiracy to control nations and reckless opponents willing to combine unlimited means with inexistent morals to stop the protagonist. Not all of these work perfectly (one last-minute revelation smacks of desperation; the secret conspiracy seems stolen from the X-Files) but they do bring extra interest to a novel that already have more than enough to sustain a quick read.
When Back to the Moon works, it works extremely well. The various battles keep on getting better and better, the power alliances keep shifting and reforming in every-threatening configurations, the hardware is ingenious, the technical details are convincing without being overwhelming and the characters are well-defined. In fact, the novel even manages to create an impressive sentimental moment three-quarter way through. It had been a long while since I’ve had a lump in my throat while reading a thriller.
This confessed, it must be said that Return to the Moon will work best on an readership of space nuts, technical enthusiasts and science-fiction fans. The same audience that loved the film OCTOBER SKY (itself a dramatization of Hickam’s teenhood autobiography Rocket Boys) will respond most favorably to the novel’s none-too-subtle pro-space propaganda.
But keeping aside the thematic goals of the novel, Return to the Moon delivers the goods in terms of entertainment. Readers lucky enough to get a copy of this book will turn the pages faster and faster as the action heats up. Homer J. Hickam vaults within the ranks of the best thriller writers with his first novel, and his next is eagerly awaited.