St. Martin’s, 1999, 390 pages, C$38.99 hc, ISBN 0-312-20521-X
The events of September 11, 2001 haven’t been kind to techno-thriller writers, ushering a brand-new age of geopolitical realities (some of them shifting on a monthly basis) and instantly relegating a whole decade of post-cold-war fiction into the dustbin of alternate realities. I took my time in making my way to Stephen Coonts’ 1999 novel Cuba and I shouldn’t have: Five years later, the novel seems both oddly prescient and irremediably dated.
Not completely dated yet, though: As of this writing, Fidel Castro is still alive and (presumably) doing well, though getting ever-older. But Cuba open as Castro is dying, an event that will set in motion a number of highly unpleasant changes in the country’s ruling class. Meanwhile, the Americans are taking biological warfare components out of Guantanamo under the supervision of Coonts’ usual protagonist, now-admiral Jake Grafton. (But in a classic case of an author struggling to merge an unfolding military series with ongoing reality, Coonts has to ignore the events of his earlier Under Siege in order to briefly revive Castro once more.) After a prologue in which an old ex-Russian soldier contemplates a missile silo hidden under Cuban farmland, well, it’s obvious where things are going sooner or later. Viva la revoluçion!
Setting a novel around the political changes to affect Cuba after Castro’s death isn’t too far-fetched, nor has it (by itself) passed in alternate realities. What’s more unsettling, however, is the fashion in which the Americans are driven to attack Cuba. You see, evidence shows that the country is developing weapons of mass destruction… oh, you heard that one already? Fortunately, in Coonts’ universe, there are actually a number of real weapons of mass destruction on the island. Whew!
But wait a second: Through the first half of the novel, we’re led in following a plot-line in which the dastardly Cubans steal a shipment of American biological weapons taken out of Guantanamo Bay base. Weapons shipped out by what appears to be a Cuban freighter, no less. (No, that didn’t make sense to me either. But there’s worse; keep reading:) The shipment is hijacked to be sold (we’re told) to those even more dastardly North Koreans. But that’s not all! As we then discover, the Cubans already had a biological weapon program ticking away in warheads pointed to the United States. At this point, sharp-eyed readers may want to frown, let loose with a little “Whaaa?” and wonder why the Cubans, even as crafty as they are, would want to take the risk to steal American biological weapons even as they’re cooking up a few. Even granted an unexplainable Cuban freighter used by the US Navy, it does seem a little bit odd. The reason for this, of course, is sheer authorial decree. Much as the Bush administration fudged around for having an excuse to go to war with Iraq, Coonts fudges around for an excuse to go to war with Cuba.
It certainly didn’t need all of this elaborate charade. If there’s anything significant in this novel in the context of Coonts’ oeuvre so far, it’s that he at least attempts to extend his novel past his usual military material. There’s some political and financial material, in addition to some espionage thrills and a memorable number of scenes set aboard a small civilian boat in peril. Cuba itself is described with a certain flair while Jake Grafton and friends don’t take over more than a half of the book. Sadly, when they do take it over, they do it will all the importance of pet characters; they fly planes, disembark on disabled freighter, go into action and do all sorts of things best left to subordinates. There are a few battles scenes; they are fun but quite ordinary.
All of which leads me to regard this novel as the kind of book best described as a contractual obligation. Yes, it’s decent entertainment, but there’s scarcely any of the fun and excitement we could expect from a top-shelf techno-thriller. It’s as if Coonts woke up one morning to find a note on his to-do list saying “write next novel”. It results in a novel that gives some warmth but not fire; some whiffs of interest but no flair. Hey, it’s better than what most of his colleagues in the military fiction business were able to write at the time. But it’s still not much of a reason to buy the hardcover, or slog through it if you’re not already a fan of Coonts’ work.