The Shell Game, Steve Alten

<em class="BookTitle">The Shell Game</em>, Steve Alten

Sweetwater Books, 2008, 512 pages, C$33.00 hc, ISBN 978-1-59955-094-7

(Read in translation as La Conspiration de l’Or Noir, City, 507 pages, ISBN 978-2-35288-186-5)

Fiction writer are prone to various work-related illnesses, but one of the most debilitating one is believing in their own genre tropes. There’s a reason why Science Fiction writers are a bunch of hard-core skeptics who are never invited to speak to UFO conferences: The moment they start believing in Little Green Men, their credibility is toast, and their fiction is next. The equivalent for thriller writers is to start believing in their own conspiracies, and it’s just as damaging: Ask anyone about Payne Harrison’s Forbidden Summit (a UFO-conspiracy novel that seemingly destroyed his fiction career) and you’ll see what happens to those who put footnotes saying It’s all true!

Alas, the Bush years have fueled all sorts of paranoid reflexes even in the most reasonable citizens, which may explain a recent influx of deeply grim novels in which stalwart heroes are stuck between bloodthirsty terrorists and a government ready to do even worse things on behalf of national security. Nelson DeMille’s Wild Fire is only the best-known of this new breed of novels where the government is just as dangerous as terrorists, and I don’t see this trend going away despite the inauguration of a new administration. We’ll get quite a few novels like Steve Alten’s The Shell Game until the wave crests.

I won’t try to pretend that Alten’s career so far has been irreproachable: For every strong thriller like his debut Meg (about an 18-wheeler-sized shark) or Goliath (about a top-secret submarine that turns sentient), there’s been a succession of insipid Meg sequels that did little to enhance his track record. The Shell Game is a departure for him in many ways. For one thing, it’s published by a boutique publishing house best known for conservative-leaning religious-themed non-fiction and not Alten’s usual top-tier publishers. The reason for that change quickly becomes apparent from the plot summary: In 2012, a man tracking down the murder of his wife discovers a plot by US government operative to detonate a nuclear explosive in a major American city, in order to justify the invasion of Iran.

The parallels with DeMille’s Wild Fire exist, but DeMille doesn’t sink nearly as deep in conspiracy-land as Alten does. Nor does DeMille risk tying his story with real-world figures. Here, though, characters have worked with Karl Rove, have defeated Hilary Clinton for the democratic presidential nomination, are named “McKuin” rather than “McCain”, and cite reams of supporting documentation whenever they meet.

And oh boy do they cite. Pages of citations. With figures, references and reminders of historical events that should be perfectly obvious to the two people having the conversation. The first half of The Shell Game is a dull recitation of a thesis on peak oil and the ways the oil industry has a stranglehold on American society. And if you’re still not satisfied by the in-text infodumps, then you’ll feast on the citations between chapters, the plainly didactic confessions of a Republican operative that are interleaved between segments, not to mention the foreword in which Alten explains that a good chunk of the novel is based on actual verifiable facts, and the afterword which provides citations for some of the novel’s concepts.

Desperate much for validation, ya think? No, it’s not enough for Alten to re-cast, much like DeMille did, the untenable “9/11 was an inside job” ideas into a future plot involving nuclear weapons. He also drags in a bunch of other conspiracy theories, from false vaccines that are actually injections of nanochip trackers to the involvement of the Saudi Arabian government in white slavery to yet another mention of the Promis super-snooper software. But when you start looking at the Alten’s sources at the back of the book, you quickly fall into a maze of unspecified “numerous sources”, untraceable “confidential sources” and a handful of books like Crossing the Rubicon that aren’t exactly unimpeachable. This novel isn’t just steeped in conspiracy theories, it’s so deep in them that they drown the actual story. By the time the actual plot unfolds, late in the novel’s second half, it’s too little too late: An explosive twist happens too late in the story to allow for reasonable dramatic development.

The irony is that from a strictly ideological perspective, I’m probably not that far away from Alten himself: As a French-Canadian, I’m somewhere beyond the left edge of American mainstream politics, and I too have ground my teeth into dust during the eight years of the Bush administration. But as much as I enjoy the storytelling potential of conspiracy theories, I don’t make the mistake of using them as reasonable explanations for what’s going on in the world.

What’s really sad about The Shell Game‘s paranoid reliance on a oil barrel full of conspiracies and dubious sourcing is that it obscures the real strengths of the novel: Alten’s understanding of the ways oil intersects with American politics is fairly sophisticated, as is his explanation of Saudi Arabia’s influence on the US government (white slavery sponsorship excluded). There’s also something intriguing about the triangular nature of the plotting at work here, as the heroes find themselves stuck between warring terrorists and a government willing to sacrifice a lot of pawns. It’s easy to dismiss the paranoia, but it’s a valid sentiment that, especially in its milder form, was shared by a lot of average Americans during Bush’s second mandate. Still, The Shell Game does itself no favors by burying itself in sources: in begging for validation, it shoots itself in the foot, whereas a wilder approach leaving more space for fiction wouldn’t have invited so much scrutiny. (No one asks Matthew Reilly for sources, for instance.) From a storytelling viewpoint, a less discursive novel also would have avoided the interminable infodumping that kills The Shell Game early on.

In interviews promoting The Shell Game, Alten confesses that his novel has a didactic intent, but stops short of professing any belief in the 9/11 conspiracy theories. If there’s any hope left for Alten’s next few novels, it’s that thin edge of skepticism. The last thing we need is another author who starts believing his own fiction.

[Also: Francophones should be wary of reading The Shell Game in translation: While La Conspiration de l’Or Noir (which back-translates in “The Black Gold Conspiracy”) is published by first-tier French publishing house City and probably enjoys better distribution in French-Canada than its English-language original, it is also riddled with numerous mistakes that further damage its credibility. Clinton’s famous “The economy, stupid” is translated as “L’économie, c’est idiot” [P. 133: “The economy, it’s stupid”] while an awkward sentence early i
n Chapter 36 makes it look as if the U.S. Bank Tower is the tallest building in North America. Worse yet: the translation introduces small errors of fact, in which a democratic candidate is called a “sénateur républicain” [Chapter 26] and the chemical attack on Halabja is described as having occurred in 1998 rather than 1988. [Chapter 20] Reader beware…]

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