Tag Archives: Eric L. Harry

Protect and Defend, Eric L. Harry

Berkley, 1999, 649 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-16814-X

Eric L. Harry’s Protect and Defend is so much fun to read that it takes a while to realize that it’s largely insane.

Up to a certain point, that’s not really a surprise: Harry’s first two novels, Arc Light (a post-nuclear war thriller) and Society of the Mind (a techno-thriller starring killer robots), both distinguished themselves by plot elements that, really, were pretty far out there. In comparison, Protect and Defend‘s opening salvo of anarchistic violence seem pretty tame. Even when Russia is taken over by anarchists, when China decides to take extra territory for itself and when NATO forces must intervene in Siberia to stop hordes of Chinese soldiers, it almost seems ordinary.

Harry’s crisp matter-of-fact prose style accounts for much of this comfort: After reading plenty of military thrillers with unconvincing writing and even worse characters, it was something to a relief to find competent storytelling. This may not be great literature as scholars understand the term, but in terms of big thick military thrillers, this really isn’t all that bad. Harry isn’t a serving military officer, and this may explain why he’s able to deliver a full-fledged military adventure (complete with tactical maps) and yet still carry along his civilian readers to the end.

The characters are familiar, but not unpleasantly so: The iconoclastic commanding officer with a penchant for intervening too closely; the teenager who learns to be all he can be thanks to the military; the well-meaning regular guy suddenly thrust into a position of power; the bright young female reporter chasing a story; the evil mastermind behind the radical movement… it’s all familiar but so well-done that it’ll take a while for you to slam on your mental brakes and scream “Wait a minute! This doesn’t make sense!”

And indeed, in the flurry of the opening pages’ slam-bang succession of action, terrorist assassinations and wide-scale chaos, it’s easy to forget that Harry’s opening act is far-fetched enough to be senseless. Anarchists organizing long enough to ferment political unrest? Taking their cues from a supreme leader? Someone’s using the word “anarchism” without quite understanding what it means…

What’s more, the thought of Russia descending in anarchy bears no resemblance to the Russians’ historical flirtation with authoritarianism. But Harry needs to kneecap his imagined Russia so that it can’t defend Siberia against Chinese invaders, so it may be best to overlook that particular objection.

Still, seven years and at least three geopolitical contexts after the book’s initial publication, it goes without saying that the geopolitics of the novel are no longer valid: Its “global anarchist threat” seems quite amusing in this era of fundamentalist terrorism. On the other hand, Protect and Defend has survived a great deal better than many of its 1999 contemporaries. The thought of American going head-to-head with China during the Siberian winter still carries along a chill: One could imagine this novel, retooled slightly, being released today. Of course, one would then have to account for why a gun-shy post-Iraq USA would gladly charge to defend a piece of frozen Russian soil against an enemy that can actually attack with more than IEDs… But that’s the kind of detail that techno-thriller writers are born to explain.

The overall impression that carries through the book is that the Siberian military action is fabulous, while the Russian political subplot is almost embarrassingly weak. By the time the Russians are joyously starving to death in the streets under benevolent anarchistic laissez-faire, enough is enough and the whole edifice of the novel nearly crumbles on its weak foundations. Worse is the disconnect between the military side and the political repercussions on either the domestic US front or the wider worldwide scale. The final epilogue, lightly borrowed from the end of Society of the Mind, is similarly disappointing: But then again, I place little trust in the “Great Man” theory of politics, especially when in veers in predestination.

On the other hand, the military engagements are described with a good deal of vividness and sympathy toward the characters stuck in those atrocious conditions, as long as you can learn to ignore the larger context. Fans of Tom Clancy (including those who were disappointed with the broadly similar The Bear and the Dragon) will appreciate the good military action and take refuge in generally familiar characters. They’ll just have to learn how to deal with the wonky geopolitics and the preposterous developments.

Society of the Mind, Eric L. Harry

Harper Collins, 1996, 504 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-06-017694-6

Rarely has an author made such an impressive debut on the techno-thriller field than Eric L. Harry with Arc Light. That first novel started with World War III… and then went on to bigger things. It was a better Clancy than most Clancy. And now, Harry goes on to write a better Crichton than Crichton.

Everyone knows the kind of story Crichton writes: Jurassic Park, RUNAWAY, Sphere, The Andromeda Strain. The kind of novel where the first half’s a walkthrough and the other half’s a non-stop race against time, death and technology run amok.

When Society of the Mind begins, a brilliant psychologist (Laura Aldridge) is brought to the private high-tech island of a multi-billionaire. Her goal, we finally get to discover, is to psychoanalyse a computer’s mind. But as the first two-third of the novel is spent “ooh-ing and “aaah-ing over bleeding-edge computers, AIs, robots and the handsome billionaire, it’s no bet to bet what’s going to happen: Before long, Laura and her billionaire will be trading kisses with each others and bullets with robots and computers gone crazy. That’s what eventually happens… but not quite in the stereotypical manner.

Harry has a real talent. Arc Light was a good story enhanced by good scenes and adequate characters. Similarly, Society of the Mind is the traditional cautious techno-thriller, but done with considerably more forethought than Crichton.

[This is where I tell the reader that Eric L. Harry has his own Web site at http://www.eharry.com/ and that on this site, you can find such fascinating information as:

  • Harry never had any intention to begin writing. Arc Light was begun because (I am not making this up!) he needed to have something to print with his new printer.
  • The first draft of Society of the Mind, a 500+ pages thriller, was written in six weeks, as an aside during the redaction of his next techno-thriller. Wow.]

It’s borderline science-fiction/techno-thriller. In E-Mail, Harry confirmed that he thought about marketing the novel as straight SF, but didn’t. Good call: Society of the Mind has the SF gadgets, but the TT “attitude” that gadgets can -and do- kill people whether we want it or not. I found the approximate date of the story (around 2000) to be ridiculously optimistic, but one never quite know…

Arc Light remains a better book, I think, but Society of the Mind doesn’t disappoint. Most of the ideas presented here are familiar to anyone versed in the latest Wired/socio-technical literature, but they’re presented quite entertainingly. However, Harry still have problems with closing down his books (The first half is usually more fun. Here, I thought most of the robotic wars could have been compressed in half the pages) and providing a satisfying finale. Even though the last few lines of this novel are a kicker.

Society of the Mind is now out in paperback and it’s a worthwhile buy. You’ll get decent entertainment value for your money, as well as more than a few thought-provoking issues. Encourage your friends to take a look at it; I know I will.

Arc Light, Eric L. Harry

Simon & Schuster, 1994, 551 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 0-671-88048-9

Though Science Fiction remains my favourite literary genre, there’s a special shelf in my personal library for techno-thrillers, a genre more closely associated with SF that most people assume. If Fantasy is the new-age-ish sister of SF, Techno-thriller is the weird cousin always playing around with guns and borrowing stuff with no intention of ever bringing it back.

Naturally, there’s a whole range of techno-thrillers. At the lowest end, there’s the standard nice-but-unrewarding “Big Weapons, Terrorists, Explosions” plots, but it takes more than a few acronyms, nuclear weapons and middle-eastern villains to make a techno-thrillers. Moving out of Sturgeon’s 90%, we get authors like Tom Clancy, Dale Brown, Harold Coyle and Larry Bond, who write impeccable, believable 500-pages novels that read more like romanced histories of future wars than simple potboilers.

Or, should I say, used to write such novels. Clancy has moved on to other things: His three latest novels have been disappointing for a number of reasons, spin-off products are diluting the “Tom Clancy” trademark and his latest fiction has been steadily skewing toward the political rather than the military end of the techno-thriller spectrum. Harold Coyle’s two latest novels have been about the Civil War. Bond and Brown’s latest offerings are markedly duller than their predecessors.

Now here’s Eric L. Harry, with an invigorating novel of nuclear war between post-Cold War USA and Russia.

Arc Light begins with nuclear war. Barely a hundred pages in the novel, the deed is done: a limited nuclear strike has devastated both countries. While no major civilian centers are hit, the military capacity of each country is vitally wounded: one of the book’s subplots follows the ordeal of two servicemen stuck in a nuclear launch silo underneath a blast area. The two governments react differently: Russia toughs it out while the USA impeach their president. (Well… He did contribute somewhat to the war by telling the Chinese that Russia was about to attack them…)

The book goes on from there, topping even a big premise with ever-quirkier plot twists. President Livingstone is judged by the senate, servicemen are called back into service, the USA invades Russia… It all leads to a good techno/military/political thriller. The blurb states that this is the most electrifying debut since Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October and while this hyperbole should be taken with a bucketful of salt, there is at least ground for comparison.

I was especially impressed by the human side of Harry’s novel, which oscillates between maudlin tearjerkers and scenes that just feel right. While the some scenes in the Melissa Chandler subplot are a bit too emotionally cheap, there’s terrific material in the scenes following the soldiers going to war. The variety of the viewpoints is also impressive: Harry doesn’t shy away from covering the action from different perspectives, from strictly military action to top-level political intrigue and espionage hijinks. The characterisation is good enough for the genre: it may not be particularly impressive, but at least it’s there. It helps that even the Russians antagonists are represented with some degree of nuance.

On the flip side, not all subplots are equally interesting and the conclusion is a bit disappointing, in no small part due to the way the author painted himself in a particular corner. A similar situation was handled somewhat better in Joe Weber’s Defcon One.

But overall, I was impressed and I think that most thriller fans will react in the same way. With his debut novel, Harry has already become an author to watch. His second book (Society of the Mind) is in stores now, and it seems to be pushing the techno-thriller genre in another direction, tackling issues about Artificial Intelligence. This type of material coming for a non-Science Fiction writer is always interesting to contemplate: you can be sure that I’ll take a look.