Turbulence, John J. Nance

Jove, 2002, 405 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-515-13486-4

Civil aviation has changed a lot since the jet-set era of the fifties. Lower ticket prices coupled with the airlines’ insatiable lust for higher profits have made modern air travel less comfortable and more stressful. “Air rage” has entered the vocabulary, reflecting the distasteful truth that planes will still take you to destination, but in unpleasant ways that may be unacceptable to an increasing proportion of passengers. As if that wasn’t enough, the demonstrated propensity of terrorists to use airliners as guided missiles has tightened the screws even further on the pressure boiler of civil aviation.

While aviation thrillers have existed for decades (reaching their height in popularity during the seventies, following the 1970 film adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s Airport), one of the best things about Turbulence is how uniquely modern it feels. Here, there is no glamour left in the cattle-like industry of air transport: Passengers are herded in uncomfortable planes, abused by airlines staff, ill-served by incompetent personnel, plunged in the middle of an overburdened airspace control system and at the constant mercy of a paranoid US government only too happy to eliminate security risks. Take a good long look at the 2002 publication date, because this book couldn’t have been published any earlier.

In this particular case, Turbulence‘s Meridian Flight Six is -thanks to the author- custom-loaded with a powder keg of resentment: a heart surgeon with a deep hatred for the airline that killed his wife, a sadistic senior flight attendant, an insecure captain, rowdy passengers, unsafe equipment and plenty of aggravations. The first leg of the flight, from Chicago to London, is bad enough. But when things go really wrong over Africa on the way to Cape Town, it all spins out of control: The passengers mutiny, the planes is forced to land on a jungle airstrip and the US government becomes convinced that terrorists armed with chemical weapons have taken control of the aircraft. When the plane doubles back toward Europe, fighter jets are mobilized to shoot it down before it can do any harm.

Nance is an old hand when it comes to thrillers (most who recognize his name will do so in his capacity of the author of the novel from which was adapted the TV series Pandora’s Clock, but he’s written ten other thrillers) and it shows: Turbulence is an ever-increasing exercise in heightening tension, as bad attitudes aboard the plane translate in small spats, leading up to more forceful arguments, physical confrontation and -ultimately- a good deal of violence. Meanwhile, the US government is confronted with mounting evidence of terrorist activities and is forced to take action against what it’s perceiving as a clear and immediate danger. While the various elements of Turbulence‘s suspense are a bit outlandish in how they all converge, there’s no denying that the result is a satisfying crescendo.

It helps, of course, that Nance has got the traditional thriller style down pat. The characters are developed just enough to make them sympathetic. It takes a while, but eventually all the pieces of the plot have a place in the action, and the result is quite a readable novel. As the clock ticks down to a conclusion, Turbulence delivers satisfying suspense and entertainment. Unfortunate readers struck down by a sudden cold half-way through the novel may end up having plane-related nightmares.

It’s not great art (the prose can be clunky at times) nor is it likely to be memorable, but it’s likely to be optioned by a studio any time soon. It it would be too presumptuous to flag the book as a call for reform in the airline industry (Meridian’s behaviour is a touch extreme, shall we say), but there’s no doubt that the picture described in this novel -however hyperbolic- reflects what many are thinking about modern civilian flight. It’s a fine line between affordable air travel and dangerous air travel; here’s hoping that Turbulence‘s suspense becomes increasingly unbelievable as things evolve.

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