Freefall, Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens

Pocket Star, 2005, 559 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7434-0607-9

I seldom buy books as soon as they come out, let alone read and review them in the same month they’re released. I had to make an exception in the case of Freefall, the third techno-thriller by the Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens writing couple. Their previous Icefire (1998) and Quicksilver (1999) were easily two of the most interesting high-tech suspense novels of the late nineties, and a third one would be cause for celebration no matter what it was about.

Luckily, the premise of their newest effort is a barn-burner: In 2008, the story goes, an automated lunar probe comes back to Earth, bringing back the first lunar samples in more than three decades. But just as the samples are transferred aboard the International Space Station, powerful explosions wreck half the station, kill most of the crew, destroy two space shuttles and strand the few survivors in orbit without hope of rescue. Stuck in a dying space station, geologist Corazon Rey opens up a sample canister and discovers, mixed with lunar rocks, the mummified remnants of two human fingers…

That’s how Freefall starts. As for how it ends, well, I’d rather leave you in suspense. For the biggest thrills of Freefall are in reading about conspiracies and secrets, the hidden history of the space race and the surprises of today’s military forces. It’s a novel that features an entirely different picture of the race to the moon, a frighteningly plausible explanation for the Roswell/Area 51 conspiracies [P.295] and an exciting second race to the moon. Freefall starts with a sequence in which American operatives investigate the Chinese space program underneath a flooded hydro-electrical reservoir, and it never lets up after that. Even more so than in Icefire, the Reeves-Stevens take a malicious pleasure in cramming throwaway mysteries and cool ideas in every available crevice of their novel. The net winners are the readers with a taste for that sort of “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” speculation. In this type of fiction, there’s a fine balance between far-fetched but still plausible supposition and straight-out wonk-wonk UFO-nuts territory, and Freefall skirts that line as close as possible without falling in X-Files territory. (Though I’ve got my doubts about P.270)

When thriller mechanics are concerned, the Reeves-Stevens know how to hook their readers like true professionals. Freefall doesn’t suffer too much from its twin-mountains structure: The middle lull between two complicated pieces of techno-adventure is exploited for some much-appreciated exposition and to tighten up the tension some more. The climax reaches a beautiful convergence of plot threads and emotional power, especially for those still carrying a torch for the cause of space exploration. This is the best space-based near-future techno-thriller since Homer J. Hickam’s Back to the Moon and that’s high praise indeed.

Extensively researched and effortlessly convincing, Freefall aims straight at the techno-geek reader and scores a definite hit. Fans of the Reeves-Steven’s previous two techno-thrillers won’t be disappointed. Readers of Icefire will be specially pleased by the return of the earlier novel’s terrific characters, with a much-expanded role for NORAD wizard Wilhemina Bailey. I’m not normally a fan of thriller series, and this one is just a bit too contrived in how it places known characters in exactly the right jobs and places, but it’s a pleasure to see Cory Rey and Mitch Webber arguing once again.

This pleasure carries further, of course: In terms of readability, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more compelling techno-thriller this year. There always the temptation to read “just another chapter” to find out what else the Reeves-Stevens will take out of their magic bag of techno-tricks. Suffice to say that after a steady diet of bland books and admirable literary novels, I had a blast delving in Freefall‘s too-few pages and all-too-wonderful secrets. For techno-nerds, reading this novel is like sipping on Jolt Cola syrup: all the caffeine, with the added advantage of a sugar rush.

If you’re up for historical secrets, high-tech conspiracies, going back to the moon, exploding space shuttles and all that fun stuff, you can call Freefall “book of the year” and stop looking for anything better. As for myself, I have seldom been so well served by a “buy-on-sight” decision: Freefall is likely to remain one of my favourite techno-thrillers of the decade.

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