Tag Archives: Garfield Reeves-Stevens

Dark Matter, Garfield Reeves-Stevens

Doubleday, 1990, 375 pages, C$24.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-24756-7

While Garfield Reeves-Stevens is now best-known for his work on various media properties, most specifically his involvement with the Star Trek franchise, he has also produced a small but significant stream of original projects earlier in his career. (And then -along with his wife Judith- a number of very good techno-thrillers, the latest of which is the excellent Freefall.) Dark Matter is one such early work, combining criminal horror with scientific content and ending in far-fetched Science Fiction. It’s not an excellent book, but it’s suitably entertaining and it’s definitely worth a look if you like horror/crime/science hybrids.

The very first scene sets the tone, describing a gruesome murder that makes the “last supper” scene in Hannibal look like a charming romp. Someone, somewhere, likes to kill young blond students while educating them about quantum mechanics. Coincidentally (but not really), the very next scene takes place in Stockholm, as three American scientists are set to receive the Nobel Prize for Physics. Soon after, a mysterious man makes them an offer they can’t refuse: A fully-financed lab, and the promise that all of their wishes will be catered to. All of their wishes…

Flash-forward three years. A dismembered body is found in a Los Angeles apartment…

Perhaps the best thing about Dark Matter is how it combines a procedural crime novel with hard-science content. On one side, scientists explore the mysteries of quantum mechanics, speaking well over the head of the average reader. Meanwhile, a policewoman with plenty of personal problems investigates a stomach-churning string of murders. We know they’re linked (in fact, Reeves-Stevens waits far too late to make explicit a link that is patently obvious from chapter two) and so the fun of the novel is in seeing these two universe intersect. The investigation is well-handled while the scientific content is as flawless as can be determined by laypeople.

While most of the scientific content will be lost on readers without specialized knowledge in high-energy physics, Reeves-Steven’s gift for clear prose and steady narrative rhythm is enough to keep turning the pages. His ability to write scientific vulgarization is astonishing. His characters are well-developed, and whoever still believes that fictional scientists should behave like robots are in for a refreshing dose of (in)humanity. Among the book’s best moments is a demonstration of a high intellect at work, solving a complex problems in a matter of seconds, each step carefully described. Reeves-Stevens tackles complex characterization issues with Dark Matter, and he’s more than partially successful in achieving what he’s trying to do.

There are also a number of interesting thematic issues raised by the characters’ willingness to do unspeakable things (or allow unspeakable things to happen) in search for inspiration. The link between genius and madness often leads to trite ethical dilemmas (“What’s one life compared to an innovation that could benefit billions?”, etc.), but Reeves-Stevens navigates a hard course and avoids on-the-nose moralizing.

But none of that will prepare readers for the last third of the book, as the the novel abruptly jumps tracks from criminal scientific fiction to far-out science-fiction. Even hard-SF readers are liable to feel that the book goes too far, too wide-scale at once. The protagonist’s quasi-magical abilities take the novel well beyond the realistic parameters followed by the novel thus far, and it doesn’t help that the pacing suddenly slacks (and takes off for Boston) in the middle of what should be an acceleration of events. The ending predictably veers into the usual metaphysical nonsense, trying too hard for enlightenment when denouement would have been enough. Weird choices for a novel that, up until then, had been kept under control.

The irony, of course, is that from a critical standpoint, the novel’s late slide into more fantastic territory makes it a lot more interesting to discuss. It’s up for debate whether a tighter, more focused version of Dark Matter would have warranted a review. (Probably, given the successful melding of horror, crime and science) As it stands, Dark Matter isn’t really recommended, but it is interesting enough to be worth a look if ever a copy should falls in your hot little hands. And not just as the early work of an author who went on to become a best-selling Star Trek co-producer!

Freefall, Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens

Pocket Star, 2005, 559 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7434-0607-9

I seldom buy books as soon as they come out, let alone read and review them in the same month they’re released. I had to make an exception in the case of Freefall, the third techno-thriller by the Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens writing couple. Their previous Icefire (1998) and Quicksilver (1999) were easily two of the most interesting high-tech suspense novels of the late nineties, and a third one would be cause for celebration no matter what it was about.

Luckily, the premise of their newest effort is a barn-burner: In 2008, the story goes, an automated lunar probe comes back to Earth, bringing back the first lunar samples in more than three decades. But just as the samples are transferred aboard the International Space Station, powerful explosions wreck half the station, kill most of the crew, destroy two space shuttles and strand the few survivors in orbit without hope of rescue. Stuck in a dying space station, geologist Corazon Rey opens up a sample canister and discovers, mixed with lunar rocks, the mummified remnants of two human fingers…

That’s how Freefall starts. As for how it ends, well, I’d rather leave you in suspense. For the biggest thrills of Freefall are in reading about conspiracies and secrets, the hidden history of the space race and the surprises of today’s military forces. It’s a novel that features an entirely different picture of the race to the moon, a frighteningly plausible explanation for the Roswell/Area 51 conspiracies [P.295] and an exciting second race to the moon. Freefall starts with a sequence in which American operatives investigate the Chinese space program underneath a flooded hydro-electrical reservoir, and it never lets up after that. Even more so than in Icefire, the Reeves-Stevens take a malicious pleasure in cramming throwaway mysteries and cool ideas in every available crevice of their novel. The net winners are the readers with a taste for that sort of “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” speculation. In this type of fiction, there’s a fine balance between far-fetched but still plausible supposition and straight-out wonk-wonk UFO-nuts territory, and Freefall skirts that line as close as possible without falling in X-Files territory. (Though I’ve got my doubts about P.270)

When thriller mechanics are concerned, the Reeves-Stevens know how to hook their readers like true professionals. Freefall doesn’t suffer too much from its twin-mountains structure: The middle lull between two complicated pieces of techno-adventure is exploited for some much-appreciated exposition and to tighten up the tension some more. The climax reaches a beautiful convergence of plot threads and emotional power, especially for those still carrying a torch for the cause of space exploration. This is the best space-based near-future techno-thriller since Homer J. Hickam’s Back to the Moon and that’s high praise indeed.

Extensively researched and effortlessly convincing, Freefall aims straight at the techno-geek reader and scores a definite hit. Fans of the Reeves-Steven’s previous two techno-thrillers won’t be disappointed. Readers of Icefire will be specially pleased by the return of the earlier novel’s terrific characters, with a much-expanded role for NORAD wizard Wilhemina Bailey. I’m not normally a fan of thriller series, and this one is just a bit too contrived in how it places known characters in exactly the right jobs and places, but it’s a pleasure to see Cory Rey and Mitch Webber arguing once again.

This pleasure carries further, of course: In terms of readability, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more compelling techno-thriller this year. There always the temptation to read “just another chapter” to find out what else the Reeves-Stevens will take out of their magic bag of techno-tricks. Suffice to say that after a steady diet of bland books and admirable literary novels, I had a blast delving in Freefall‘s too-few pages and all-too-wonderful secrets. For techno-nerds, reading this novel is like sipping on Jolt Cola syrup: all the caffeine, with the added advantage of a sugar rush.

If you’re up for historical secrets, high-tech conspiracies, going back to the moon, exploding space shuttles and all that fun stuff, you can call Freefall “book of the year” and stop looking for anything better. As for myself, I have seldom been so well served by a “buy-on-sight” decision: Freefall is likely to remain one of my favourite techno-thrillers of the decade.

Icefire, Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens

Pocket, 1998, 703 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-01403-X

If Icefire is to be believed, the government should be monitoring private home pages to detect, identify and act upon threats to the state based on intricate psychological profiles. In this case, I fully expect unmarked black vans in front of my home any moment now: In the past year, these book reviews have demonstrated an unhealthy interest in global catastrophes of various flavors: Insect extinction (Dust, Charles Pellegrino), Alien Invasion (The Killing Star, Pellegrino and George Zebrowski), EMP event (Aftermath, Charles Sheffield), Exploding Moon (Moonfall, Jack McDevitt), Crazy Terrorists (Storming Heaven, Dale Brown), Cometary Impact (Final Impact, Yvonne Navarro), Bio-Warfare (The Cobra Event, Richard Preston)… Now here comes Icefire, a global catastrophe thriller that begins in one of the world’s most unexpected places… Antarctica.

The Reeves-Stevens premise is simple: A large part of Antarctica (The Ross Shelf) is actually hanging over open sea. Should this area be abruptly hurled into the sea, it would create a massive wave that would travel across the entire Pacific Ocean in a matter of hours, devastating everything in its path.

Guess what? This is exactly what happens in the opening pages of the novel, as nuclear warheads are detonated by terrorists. Before long, our Navy SEAL protagonist Mitch Weber is forced to team up with environmentalist Cory Rey to warn the world of the impending danger. Complicating the matter further is that the two were once lovers, but now stare at each other from totally opposite ideological viewpoints.

To be charitable, Icefire is not a novel of characters. A techno-thriller in the best tradition, it is a breathtaking narrative of rapidly introduced ideas and good-old American can-do military intervention. Everyone who despaired at the current techno-thriller slump should rejoice at the arrival of the Reeves-Stevens on the scene.

One crucial element that has been well-understood by the writers is the techno-thriller genre’s reliance on secrets. Whether anyone believes that the US military knows about UFOs and such, most of us suspect that they’ve been hiding some pretty fascinating technology. Icefire has far too much fun in imagining what these secrets might be. Though overdone in some areas (come on, they’re still rehashing Roswell?), this is one of the nice surprises of the book. Are these high-tech secrets convincing? Well, I did look on the Internet for some references to the mysterious objects described on pages 243-244. Even at 10$ for the paperback, there is a lot of material for your money in Icefire‘s 703 pages.

The other surprise is how darn exciting it all is. Icefire begins with nuclear explosions and builds on to bigger things. The means used by our protagonists to travel beyond the wave are increasingly high-tech, and the action doesn’t let stop. Several “Cool Scenes” [TM] pepper the narrative, pushing Icefire well above the average techno-thriller novel.

Best of all, the writing flows very well. The characters are well defined in their functions, even if not much deeper. (I never really believed in the protagonists’ past romance, for instance, seeing how radically different their personality types are.) The plot mechanics are ingenious, wisely dropping cards when needed and withholding some bigger stakes for later. The conclusion is kind of flat, but after all that happened, who can blame readers for being a bit numb?

One could go on endlessly about Icefire, but it all boils down to how much fun it all is. What’s most surprising is that Reeves-Stevens are relative newcomers at techno-thrillers. They either studied their market cynically well, or they instinctively know what to do. In any case, I’m anxiously waiting for their next techno-thriller. Good stuff.

Star Trek Phase II, Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens

Pocket, 1997, 357 pages, C$21.50 tpb, ISBN 0-671-56839-6

I was a teenage Star Trek fan.

But I’m much better now.

Science-Fiction is a terribly pernicious addiction. When you begin, everything is good stuff, regardless of actual value. But as one increases one’s level of SF literacy, some things don’t appear so hot. Clichés, déjà-vus, staleness begin to creep in.

This is where most non-prose SF (Media-SF) doesn’t hold up. Most of the time, it rediscovers concepts that were introduced, explored, and discarded years before by written SF. (And, usually do them wrong!) Add to that the unsatisfying nature of episodic SF and…

The epitome of Media-SF is certainly Star Trek, whose history is now the source of countless legends, and almost as countless spin-off products. A fascinating case in itself, Star Trek is one of the only TV series to successfully re-invent itself, nearly twenty years after its first diffusion. The Original Series mutated in The Next Generation, and the rest is TV history.

But the path from TOS to TNG included one surprising attempt at a Star Trek sequel, starring most of the cast from The Original Series. The name, Star Trek II. The time: 1977.

While the tale had been quickly sketched elsewhere, most notably in George Takei’s autobiography, Star Trek Phase II presents the “official” history of the aborted series.

In a series of event roughly paralleled in 1994 with UPN and Star Trek: Voyager, Paramount announced in 1977 that it would launch a new network of its own, using a revived Star Trek series as its flagship. (pun; ha-ha) Actors were signed, scripts were written, sets were constructed… but funding was lacking, so the series was scrapped and the pilot episode transformed in STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE.

Star Trek Phase II is divided in four parts. The first, -by far the most interesting- is a journalistic account of Star Trek II’s creation and downfall. Informative and even entertaining, this is the heart of the book. The second part presents the series “bible”; an exceptional document for Star Trek completists and TV series students. The third part contains the original story treatment by Alan Dean Foster and the first draft script by Harold Livingston for what would become STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. This section is of interest mainly for ST:TMP fans, if any are left (see below). The fourth part is nothing less than a few of the initial ideas for episodes of STAR TREK II. Notable are works of Ted Sturgeon, Norman Spinrad, and the complete script of the ST II episode that was eventually remade as the ST:TNG episode “The Child” The interest of this last section is highly variable: Most of the time, the story outlines made references to characters (Illia, Xon, Decker) unfamiliar to the casual reader.

Star Trek Phase II is definitely for the confirmed Trek fan. Other will want to read something… fresher.

Addenda: The very same day that I put down the book in question, I was zapping through channels when a familiar name in a familiar font attracted my attention: “Executive producer: Gene Roddenberry.” Three bars of music later, I was sitting down for three hours. ST: TMP had begun.

I used to consider this movie one of my favorite (for the slickness of the production alone) but sadly, my memories don’t match up to the actual film. It’s long, it’s almost plot-less and by goodness, the then-much-lauded special effects are now almost ridiculous!