Hong Kong, Stephen Coonts

St. Martin’s, 1999, 350 pages, C$39.99 hc, ISBN 0-312-25339-7

The imperatives of commercial fiction can be tough, but as much as I feel for the poor authors trying to make a living out of their writing, my natural sympathies lie with the readers who have to slog through the barely adequate stuff produced by a publishing industry fixated on profits.

Stephen Coonts’ Hong Kong is a perfect example of what happens when a hard-working writer gets stuck in the machine, churning out one commercial novel per year while trying to stretch a formula way past its expiration date. Taken apart, there are at least three or four good ideas in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, they never should have been put together, nor hammered in an existing series.

Yes, Hong Kong marks yet another adventure for Coonts’ favourite protagonist Jake Grafton. After his tour of duty in Cuba, Grafton is back in the game in Hong Kong as a rear admiral sent to investigate a mysterious situation in the ex-British colony. He hasn’t been picked by accident: For one thing, man-of-action Grafton is twiddling his thumbs behind a desk at the Pentagon. For another, the man he’s set to investigate is consul-general Virgil “Tiger” Cole, making a return appearance after starring alongside Grafton in Coonts’ very first novel Flight of the Intruder. (If you’ve seen the movie, Cole is the character played by Willem Dafoe, which is actually perfect casting for this novel too.) Cole isn’t the only returning character: While “Toad” Tarkington is relegated to a cameo role via telephone, a large place is given to thief/agent Tommy Carmellini, introduced in Cuba.

Most of the Hong Kong is spend dawdling around, waiting for the book’s set-piece: a revolution against the communist government now ruling Hong Kong. Cole, we learn, has spent his post-Vietnam years fruitfully, become a multi-millionaire with enough technological clout to ferment a popular uprising against the entire Chinese government. It helps, of course, that he can depend on impossible technology like the “sergeant York” killer robots… about which in a moment.

There are, to be sure, interesting ideas here. The idea of having Grafton meet with old acquaintances of troubled loyalties is certainly interesting, and it’s exactly the type of story sequels are made of. Similarly, the idea of Hong Kong hosting a revolution with the potential to unseat the entire Chinese government is the type of big, big idea that deserves a novel of its own. There there is the technological showcase of the book, a half-dozen semi-autonomous robots able to outrun linebackers, shoot any hand-held weapon with computerized accuracy and operate without constant supervision from remote tele-operators. This is worth building a novel around.

Unfortunately, this type of killer robots isn’t anywhere near reality right now for good reasons: They combine technological capabilities that are far beyond anything possible today. Spend some time reading about the state of automated targeting, computerized image recognition, mechanical locomotion, hand-like articulations and power sources required to do these things and you’ll start laughing at the way Coonts introduces a package combining all of these things in Hong Kong. This is a piece of mid-twenty first century technology dropped in a contemporary setting. While I’d pay good money to read a novel about the introduction of such technology on an appropriate future battlefield, this impossible technology just doesn’t mesh with the rest of Coonts’ novel.

Well, it does meshes in a way, giving life to a few creepy/cool scenes, but that’s it. The final man/robot showdown (you know there’s got to be one, and you can even guess who’s featured in it) seems stolen from a Terminator fan-script. Add to that Callie Grafton’s role as the designated kidnapped woman, the annoying suspicion that this is the last we’ll ever hear of the Chinese civil war in the Grafton series, and, well, Hong Kong is problematic. Despite the good material here and there (including just about all of the showpiece Chapter Nineteen), the book suffers from a number of annoying contradictions that diminish its impact.

This is a Grafton novel because that’s what the publishers demanded, in the false belief that this is what readers want to read. But the selective amnesia required to make long-running thriller series mesh with the ongoing real world gets progressively more exasperating as the series run to compound the difficulties with unbelievable gadgets and indifferent dramatic tension. It’s not an unpleasant book, but it could have been much, much better.

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