The Breach, Harper, 2009, 384 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-06-158445-9
Ghost Country, Harper, 2010, 384 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-06-158444-2
Deep Sky, Harper, 2011, 384 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-06-195879-3
As someone who loves both Science Fiction and techno-thrillers, I’m always a bit surprised at how few authors have been able to combine the strengths of both genres into a hybrid success. Science Fiction is about awe at the possibilities of the universe and the futures available to us; techno-thrillers are usually a distillation of the same possibilities, in a contemporary setting that can make everything feel more relevant. Of course, there are differences in approach and easy pitfalls in both genres: At its worst, techno-thrillers reject the intrusion of the future in our realities, making sure that the genie goes back the box at the end of the story. Meanwhile, bad science-fiction is about gadgets more than human emotions, and narrative patterns that only make sense to long-time genre readers.
Patrick Lee’s Travis Chase trilogy is a superb exercise in combining techno-thriller plot mechanics with science-fiction concepts and it’s so successful that it made me giddy with pure reading excitement for the first time in a long while. Lee doesn’t just play in the sandbox of both genres, but combines them in ways that feel fresh and exciting, playing with the possibilities while never quite betraying both audiences with dead-end ideas.
The best readers for those books are probably jaded and familiar with tropes of both genres. Lee’s rapid pacing and go-for-broke plotting is earnest to a point that at times approach self-parody, but it fully shows its cards in the first few chapters. (It takes a special kind of reader, maybe not you, to appreciate passages such as “He wasn’t going to kill her. He’d accrued enough of that brand of guilt for one lifetime. ¶ But he was going to kill again. ” [P.33] ) Consider that within seventy-five pages of the first volume, our protagonist (an ex-cop and ex-con) hiking through the Alaskan wilderness for a relaxing holiday ends up stumbling over the fresh wreckage of a sophisticated 747, discovers the body of the First Lady alongside a number of scientists, is given the missing to find hostages and kill them before they can betray national secrets, battles terrorists and discovers a dangerous omniscient artifact that takes over his mind, nearly leading to the launch of a limited nuclear strike against China. To repeat: all of that takes place in the first seventy-five pages. It gets crazier after that.
For our protagonist Travis Chase has become sucked into the world of The Breach, a secret government organization set up to manage the output of an accidental wormhole in a scientific facility deep under the American Midwest. The Breach, you see, regularly spews out unusual, extraordinary, often dangerous alien objects. Objects with near-magical powers. Objects that could destroy a good chunk of the world if mishandled.
With a setup like that, it’s no wonder that the trilogy gets off roaring and seldom slows down. Once Chase is accepted within The Breach, he’s quickly led to “the most dangerous building in the world” (how can you resist that as a narrative hook?) where he and other members of the organization engage in a prodigiously vertiginous game of logic-building taking in account that they’re up against an omniscient antagonist. The gadgets that The Breach bring along help set up a deliciously over-the-top set-piece in which a lone team of special operatives gets to square off against an entire city of antagonists. It’s ridiculously over-the-top and yet exactly the kind of virtuoso sequence that many techno-thrillers writers don’t have the imagination to conceive, let alone pull off. Never mind the fantastic gadgets required to make it work: The entire trilogy seems to run from one science-fictional set-piece to another. The Breach keeps running at a breathless pace, leading to a spectacular conclusion that puts a big question mark over the hero’s true nature.
The first volume depends upon the concept of The Breach and an omniscient trickster AI, but the second one, Ghost Country, gets to play with an unusual time machine. Innovatively enough, Lee posits a pair of devices allowing to move back and forth between the present and a future fixed at the moment of the devices’ activation. The problem is that the future, seventy-five years forward, clearly shows an imminent apocalypse, and nothing they do in the present can change the future. How can they figure out what’s about to happen? Naturally, this movement back-and-forth between the present and the future allows for some complicated action set-pieces, not to mention the intellectual thrill of chasing answers in two different realities.
As a follow-up, the third volume Deep Sky plays along with the idea of a secret at The Breach’s inception, along with a gadget that allows going back in time and re-living that moment with full access to the world of then. There’s a crackling good sequence later in the book in which Chase gets to use knowledge that would have been impossible to get otherwise, cleverly turning the tables on his trap-laying antagonists. Deep Sky’s end sequence goes back to mysteries left unsolved in the first volume to deliver a purely science-fictional conclusion that presents an arresting moral dilemma for the protagonist –and, perhaps, the reader.
Given the trilogy’s unending inventiveness, its straightforward muscular prose, its innovative action sequences, its uncomplicated characterization, its willingness to commit to world-changing events and it’s no surprise if I raced through all three books in a mere few days, rediscovering a pure honest joy of reading that I feared lost to my own jaded self. The Travis Chase trilogy is fun to read like few other recent books, with enough weighty ideas to make a bit more than disposable entertainment. No surprise if I eventually found myself selling the praises of the book enthusiastically to a table full of readers, with even the mild spoilers above seeming to give added attractiveness to the series.
I’m also, from a critical standpoint, impressed at Lee’s ability to combine SF elements within a thriller framework without necessarily compromising the science-fictional elements themselves. By the end of the third volume, the world is irrevocably changed, and the protagonist has discovered a side of himself that’s potentially as ruthless and homicidal as any of history’s greatest dictators. The concepts used to bring along this conclusion are as science-fictional as could be, so it’s surprising to realize that the trilogy is practically never marketed as science-fiction. (The French translation, which is what brought me to the series, is published as overt SF by a specialized genre publisher.) And yet it is: while some of the plotting is more thrillerish than science-fictional (I don’t think that the first volume’s Berne set-piece would have been accepted by an SF editor, although it clearly fits within the thriller genre’s accepted standards.) it never loses sight of SF’s central ability to play along with an idea until all the good possibilities are shown on-screen. The trilogy may be built on impossible gadgets, but they’re great gadgets and they’re exploited to the full extent of their capabilities. It’s books like those that make readers realize how rigid some genre boundaries have become, and welcome the possibilities of a bit of genre-bending.
While the trilogy isn’t flawless (the second book feel disconnected from the rest of the trilogy’s overall plot, the characters sometimes have a bit too much past history, there’s little rigor to the extrapolations and the over-the-top nature of the plot can be a bit daunting if you’re not already sympathetic to this kind of thing), it’s a memorable read and a completely satisfying reading experience. As such, I’d rate it as quite a bit more valuable than many more thrillers that take no chances and don’t go beyond the most obvious ideas. I certainly welcome reading more of Lee’s work in the future, and I hope that a lot of SF fans don’t let this trilogy pass them by due to a quirk of labelling.