Quantico, Greg Bear

<em class="BookTitle">Quantico</em>, Greg Bear

Vanguard Press, 2008 revised edition of 2005 original, 478 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-1-59315-473-8

For readers, every new Greg Bear novel is an exercise in gambling. His career spans the best like the worst, although recent work have been on a downward trend. His forays in thriller fiction (Vitals) haven’t always been successful, and Quantico’s troubled path to publication (Vanguard Press isn’t a top-tier publisher for genre fiction, much less one of Greg Bear’s usual publishers) was not a promising sign.

Happily, it turns out that Quantico is merely average, and not a disaster of Vitals proportions. It’s a too-earnest techno-thriller convinced of its own self-importance and it’s generally duller than any genre reader has any right to expect, but it has a few ideas in its mind, and offers a number of interesting moments.

It takes place about a decade in the future, at a time where the United States are still deeply obsessed about the War on Terror. 9/11 has been followed by something called 10/4 (details unspecified), and the gloom of the Bush years still seems to be prevalent throughout the novel. The biggest difference is that home-grown terrorists seem to have become as dangerous as foreign ones: As the novel opens, FBI agents are on the verge of capturing an important cult leader. What they find in the wreckage of the operation, though, goes well beyond anything anyone had imagined: At a time where bio-terrorism is cheap, there’s a lot more to fear from viruses than explosives.

Perhaps the best thing about Quantico is its portrait of a future FBI where law-enforcement technology has kept up with threats. Bear has done his research, and the tools he gives to his heroes do much to ground his novel in foreseeable reality. The three young FBI agents who become the protagonist of the story are exemplary recruits, and through them he’s able to perpetuate the mystique of the Bureau. Quantico is also bolstered with what sounds like authentic police lore and lingo, making feel like an unusually well-detailed thriller at a time where spectacle seems de rigueur.

The plot itself isn’t quite so successful: it depends on an implausible yet tired antagonist (ah, the good old idiot-savant bio-terrorist…), meanders quite a bit on its way to a conclusion and generally feels like something we’ve seen far too often before. Part of the issue is that Bear may not know how to write thrillers on a sentence-per-sentence level. His flat narration makes little distinction between exposition and action scenes, with the result that even the book’s most suspenseful moments come across as flatter than they deserve.

All of that is damning enough, but then I realized midway through the novel that I wasn’t enjoying any of it. To put it simply, Quantico isn’t particularly good beach reading and it took me until the end of the novel to figure out why. As I waded in the supplementary material added to the mass-market paperback edition, my unease grew clearer: After a deleted scene, an afterword, a Q&A (badly edited to repeat almost verbatim passages from the afterword a few pages before) and a lengthy annotated bibliography, it struck me that Quantico wasn’t just begging to be taken seriously: It was demanding, with great force, to be accepted as a serious and important statement on the future of terrorism in the United States. Every appeal to authority, research and verisimilitude only underscored the misguided aims of the novel.

Basically, Quantico gave up on entertaining the reader before it even began. Self-obsessed with Making a Statement, it ends up being an annoyingly shrill retread of catastrophic thinking. It reads, even less than a year in the Obama administration, like an escaped convict from the Bush Terror Years, paranoid at even the slightest provocation, and retreating in its own safe place with somber declarations than only clear-eyed patriots can think about the unthinkable.

Somber predictions of doom and gloom with little escape aren’t exactly what I need from my entertainment reading. Genre reading protocols are amenable to pessimistic takes on reality (after all, it seems as if most thriller and military fiction writers are obsessed with ever-more-exotic threats to the fabric of the nation), but a good chunk of my favourite thrillers actually dare to envision the possibility of a better future… once threats are disposed of. Quantico is too dour, too obsessed with never-ending danger to be any fun. There’s a public for that, I suppose.

As I write this review and check my sources, I see that Quantico will soon be followed by Mariposa, a follow-up featuring most of the characters. This does not bode well: thrillers are rarely suited to recurring series… especially in dealing with consequences of previous volumes. Most writers avoid the problem by pretending that previous volumes don’t exist (something that still drives me slightly nuts about Lee Child’s “Reacher” series), but that supposes that previous volumes are worth reading at all. Given how Quantico struggles to even maintain a base level of interest , I’m not going to be among those special-ordering Mariposa upon publication. Especially if it still swears up and down to be taken seriously.

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