Morrow, 2005, 384 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-075299-8
Finally! After more than half a dozen increasingly awful novels set in the the same tired universe, Dale Brown finally comes to his sense, ditches the Patrick McLanahan series and starts afresh. At a time where military thrillers readers are increasingly reluctant to “take a chance” on unfamiliar characters, it’s tempting to give grudging respect to Brown for doing what he should have done ten years ago.
But don’t be so sure that he’s stretching or being audacious. For one thing, Act of War is not a pure act of literature: Sharp-eyed readers will read the copyright page and notice that “Act of War” is a trademark of Atari Interactive, Inc. Those with a gaming background will already know about the “Act of War” Real-Time Strategy game. In other words, this is a tie-in novel, whether Dale Brown contributed to the game or vice-versa.
For another proof that the author’s not being too ambitious, consider that we’re not too far away from Brown’s pet toys of late: Starting from the “Real-World News Excerpts” that open the novel, we’re back into the “armoured exoskeleton” shtick that Brown has carried along since The Tin Man. Yup, it’s all high-tech robots from there to the end of the novel, as valiant Americans battle terrorists who dare take on the Empire. A new universe? A departure? A stroke of marketing genius? Eh, you decide.
And yet, despite Brown’s unwillingness to stray too far from what he has come to know best, there is an undeniable sense of freedom to be found in this departure. The book opens with a bang, as terrorists set off a tactical nuclear warhead to destroy a petroleum facility in Texas. Then the new characters take over, and for a while it’s fun to see where the tale goes now that McLanahan is nowhere in the way. New protagonist Jason Richter isn’t a big switch from McLanahan, mind you: Younger and more technologically sophisticated, Richter otherwise shares the same personality template with Brown’s best-known protagonist. Rebellious to a degree that seems implausible, Richter gets repeatedly chewed out for disobeying orders but, like McLanahan, always ends up vindicated for using his giant robots against the evil terrorists. Naturally, it’s no real surprise if big robots end up being the perfect solution for everything.
This naturally raises the question of finding out which part of the novel wags the other around. A clumsy mixture of the strategic and the tactical, Act of War initially sets out to re-fight the War on Terrorism on pure wish-fulfilment. As the story advances, we get the feeling that Brown thinks that Bush is a big kitten in national security matters, and that only decisive actions can truly save the American way of life. As Brown’s President seems gung-ho on declaring war on a concept (literally, despite those accursed civil-rights advocates in Congress), it seems obvious that this high-level muck is just there to justify the giant robot antics of Richter and his gang. The alternative -that this ridiculous pap is meant to be taken seriously- is almost too ridiculous to contemplate. Considering that Act of War is a video-game and that the point of video-games is blowing up stuff real good (a task uniquely suited to giant robots), one gets the sense that there’s a bigger dog wagging the novel around.
This being said, I’m trying really hard to avoid painting this as yet another video-game novelization. The prose style is all Brown, including the stiff prose and lack of technical prowess. The characters are generic and if the plotting is generally better than any of the author’s previous half-dozen novels, Act of War still suffers from jerky pacing, and a single-minded obsession about giant robots. It doesn’t help that Brown’s vision of terrorism remains hopelessly quaint: Unlike what we’ve come to expect from the real world those past years, the acts in Act of War take on a cartoonish quality as they are masterminded by an evil cabal too clichéd to feel real. Even in a “hard-hitting” post-2001 novel about terrorism, Brown infantilizes the issue and can’t face the real forces at play.
And yet, even as lousy as it is, Act of War represents a definite step up for Brown. The first few pages of the book carry a little frisson, as it looks like Brown will finally take the next step up. Free of the McLanahan shackles, the novel stretches a little bit and gets back to the wide-screen feel of the author’s first few books. There is a surprising amount of hidden agendas and ambiguous motivations to be stripped off on the way to the true “terrorist-vs-USA” plot and if the end result is another disappointment, the indifferent impression ultimately left by the novel was not a foregone conclusion. It may not be enough to make me read the next one… but it’s sufficient to stop me from discounting the thought altogether.
[February 2009: When you’re got a hammer, all problems look like nails, and ever since Brown ditched his B-52s for Giant Robots, it looks as if he wants to take on every single issue of national interest with his cool toys —including illegal immigration. So don’t expect Edge of Battle to be any better than his previous novels. In fact, it’s markedly worse: bad characters, dumb situations, reams of spurting exposition and some ill-advised plotting all combine to bring this book down. The robots aren’t the worst part, actually: nearly every attempt to use them backfires. No, it’s the attempt to combine innefectual Mexican political leadership with an evil Russian terrorist/criminal that really sinks the novel beyond its lack of entertainment value. And yet, from time to time, we get some exposition that suggests that Dale does understand some of the issues he’s dealing with. It’s just that he never follows up on his best ideas, and that the comic-book plotting of the novel never seems to be adressed to adults. We are, clearly, a long way away from the guy who wrote Hammerheads.]