Kevin J. Anderson

Hopscotch, Kevin J. Anderson

Bantam Spectra, 2002, 468 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-57640-2

The pulp-magazine origins of genre science-fiction have allowed it to evolve its own self-sustaining market, its own rarefied standards of extrapolation and its own sub-culture of specialized fans. SF has prospered under these conditions, but in working within its own ghetto, has also relied too long on a few lazy habits that are hard to break. Intentional simplification is one of those conventions that has to go, and otherwise satisfying works like Kevin J. Anderson’s Hopscotch demonstrate why.

The standard procedure goes like this: Given a really good idea, the author’s temptation is to write a story set in a future shaped almost exclusively by this idea. For most of SF’s history, this has meant flying cars in settings identical to white American suburbia, circa 1950-1960. Caucasian heroes saving the galaxy while their housewives are busy raising the mutated kids. Nuclear families with atomic rocketships.

But back in the real world, we know that the present isn’t so simple, and that the future is even less likely to be so. The hallmark of today’s best SF writers (as represented by Sterling, Stross, etc.) is to present a future that is as textured, as shattered as today’s society. Futures with political complexity. Futures with doubt, incompetence and all sorts of human failings in environments that will never gleam with glass and chrome. Old-school SF, in this context, can still be enjoyable —but it just doesn’t hold up as a piece of credible extrapolation.

Kevin J. Anderson’s Hopscotch, despite considerable lengths and a regrettable political naiveté, is a lot of fun to read. From a basic concept (what if minds could easily hop from one body to another?), Anderson imagines four hundred pages’ worth of incidents, anecdotes, economic transactions and other neat consequences. The plot is built as a template on which to hang as many of those body-switching ideas as possible. In many ways, it’s a throwback to the pure idea-throwing fun of classic genre SF. After the first few pages, it’s obvious that Hopscotch doesn’t mean to be cutting-edge SF, but a nostalgic idea-driven romp. (The hopscotching process itself is left purposefully vague, relying on foggy noosphere notions that aren’t developed very well.) The writer is purposefully playing a very specific SF game, and well-behaved readers will know how to play along.

It works well, but only up to a point. I’m not going to say much about the straight-to-the-fact writing and the utilitarian style, mostly because genre SF has evolved a tolerance for efficient prose. What hurts a lot more is the emptiness of Hopscotch‘s world beyond the hopscotching. It all takes place in a vaguely specific America, with absent political structures and undefined social issues. (As you may expect, if the US is an abstraction in Hopscotch, the rest of the world is even less visible.) There’s a brand-new, all-powerful regulatory agency to prevent hopscotching abuse. Otherwise, well, you’re left wondering. The very concept of hopscotching seems to have been greeted with widespread approval, and there’s no word of anything looking like a counter-hopscotching movement.

But is it fair to nit-pick this novel with such base concerns? Hopscotch, after all, doesn’t aim to present a “real” vision of the future. The lack of technical details points the way: this is old-fashioned science-fantasy, using the rational language of SF to make a point after a purely speculative, even fantastic premise. If the characters act like dim-bulbs through the entire plot, it’s to precipitate the action. If the world has no political complexity, it’s to simplify the plotting. (Even the organizational politics don’t make sense; an FBI agent today would not be allowed to head an investigation tracking down one of his best buddies.) Hopscotch has chosen to be a mean idea machine.

A more serious objection to Hopscotch as a piece of old-school SF is that by those very same old-school standards, it’s almost unbearably long. Novels of the sixties barely topped 250 pages. This one clocks in a nearly twice that, and the last third of the novel seems needlessly long. Worse; it’s precipitated by stupid actions by characters. You know that a novel, as fun as it is, has overstayed its welcome when you wish the runaway character would just give himself up.

It’s enough to drive you nuts: Hopscotch is a fun, fine novel, packed with ideas and easy to read. Yet it remains so far and so close to something better, something that could actually have relevance to today’s world rather than yesterday’s genre.

Assemblers of Infinity, Kevin J. Anderson & Doug Beason

Bantam Spectra, 1993, 278 pages, C$20.00 hc, ISBN 0-553-29921-2

The gradual endangerment of the Science Fiction mid-list over the past decade and a half has already been discussed to death elsewhere, but that doesn’t make it any less important. The conglomeration of publishing under ever-hungrier multinationals has increased the drive for clear profits. Authors who used to sell profitably but not spectacularly have been driven away in the hope of finding strings of best-sellers. This, in turn, has affected what gets into bookstores. Authors are encouraged to do series, to do novelizations, to “co-write” something with a celebrity.

Unfortunately, what has gotten lost in this evolution is what I call the meat-and-potatoes genre novel. The kind of adequate, but unspectacular standalone book that entertains despite not breaking any genre convention. Novels like Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason’s Assemblers of Infinity.

The story is one we’ve seen many times before: Twenty-five years in the future, astronauts on the moon discover a strange alien artifact that is both intriguing and dangerous. People die, scientists are sent to investigate and soon enough, we’re stuck in a race against time, between revelation and annihilation. Simple enough: that Anderson and Beason choose to exploit nanotechnology as the Danger Tech is a sign of the times, but otherwise there isn’t much that’s not instantly recognizable by SF fans.

Not that this is a bad thing: From the opening prologue, in which a discovery turns deadly, fans will slip into Assemblers of Infinity like in an old set of clothes. The technology-heavy vocabulary is familiar. The easy prose is unobtrusive and compulsively readable. The characters are engineers and scientists, bright folks with just enough back-story to avoid charges of cardboard characterization. In short, it’s a perfectly lovely hard-SF story in the Clarke mold, with enough ambiguity to make it interesting: the characters don’t neatly divide in good/bad bins, and that’s already nice enough. In retrospect, few fans will be surprised by the twists and turns taken by Assemblers of Infinity, though there are a number of pleasant developments here and there (much like the authors’ previous Lifeline, which tweaked a few genre conventions by the nose). The somewhat gratuitous suggestion of ESP power is old-fashioned, but not in an intolerable way: Everything ends up fitting together nicely.

Assemblers of Infinity is not meant to be innovative, but comforting. Working away from genre spotlights, the Anderson/Beason team has produced more than half a dozen interesting Hard-SF/techno-thrillers that are well-worth a quick read. Comfort food for the SF audience, meat-and-potatoes novels that are fulfilling but hardly spectacular. And that’s fine, because those mid-pack novels are the true backbone of the genre, the structural blocks that define what people imagine when they think about SF. The genre classics stand out over the background noise that is generated by novels such as this one. Without a strong fuzzy stream of good solid SF novels, there isn’t much of a genre. Assemblers of Infinity may be a middle-of-the-pack book, but there’s no dishonour in that.

Ultimately, this thought brings us back to why the much-heralded “death of the mid-list” hurts the genre. Without a support net of mid-list building blocks, SF is stuck without references, without a way to keep readers from abandoning the genre while waiting for the next Big Thing.

So authors adapt and evolve. Like Kevin J. Anderson, they start massive trilogies and series. They turn to comic-book writing. They shill themselves to cults and celebrities. They write novelizations. They try other genres in the hope that they’ll find a magic formula. But most of all, they stop writing those mid-list novels that define the genre. Assemblers of Infinity may not be publishable today (The Anderson/Beason team has certainly stopped writing anything like it), and that’s a real shame.

Lifeline, Kevin J. Anderson & Doug Beason

Bantam Spectra, 1990, 460 pages, C$5.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-28787-7

Popular fiction often depends on a common, unspoken set of assumptions. Most readers never notice them until they’re stripped away. While Anderson and Beason’s Lifeline is far from being an atypical piece of hard-SF, prepare to be surprised at some of the early plot twists. This is a novel that doesn’t start by playing nice.

One of those expectations is that heroes should behave, well, heroically. A second should be that “our side” (ie; usually Americans) should also be virtuous. Yet another would be that everything means something; audacious stunts should pay off.

In the opening pages of Lifeline, the hammer falls repeatedly.

The narrative starts with a global thermonuclear war. But don’t worry; this will be the least of our problems. Indeed, the novel merely uses the death of a few hundred million people as an excuse to set up a survival story in Earth orbit; cut off from the home planet for the foreseeable future, the four human settlements in space have to co-operate in order to survive. Each has something that the others need. Are they going to be able to settle their differences in time?

It won’t be a simple endeavour. Aboard the Corporate American station Orbitech, one manager panics, grabs his sick daughter and hijacks a space shuttle. His destination? The Moonbase—which is incidentally headed by a weak director more interested in science than administration. The manager’s attempt fails; the shuttle crashes, destroying it and killing the pilot. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough of a guilt trip, his daughter is also killed in the crash.

The unpleasantness doesn’t stop there, as the Soviet Station Kibalchich sets in motion a doomsday weapon plan. Aboard the Philippine Aguinaldo station, there’s enough biotechnology to feed the two other stations, if only some politicians didn’t feel it was pay-back time for decades of superpower oppression. (Oh, and a technician is killed when one of the protagonist makes a stupid mistake. Lifeline is an equal-opportunity narrative guilt machine.)

Naturally, it gets better. Faced with starvation, Orbitech’s deputy director spaces a hundred of the most inefficient people. Later, a mob of survivors knifes the director of the station in the cafeteria. Don’t worry; there’s a public execution later on.

All of this happens in the first hundred pages of the book, which sets up quite a tone for the rest of the book. It lets up somewhat (another accidental death seemingly caused by one protagonist is explained to be no fault of his own) but the uneasy feeling remains through the whole book.

Which is a good thing, because otherwise there wouldn’t be much that’s memorable in Lifeline. It’s competent Hard-SF, with sophisticated technical details, adequate characters and average plotting. True to the ethos of Hard-SF, it basically puts the protagonist against a huge problem, then makes it worse until they find the mixture of technological gadgetry and audacious recklessness that will make everything all right.

On a geopolitical level -never the strength of Hard-SF writers, but I digress-, the presence of the Philippines in space isn’t particularly convincing, even as a token of bribery from the Americans to a vacillating ally. You’d think that space would be at such a premium, and at such value, that America would rather give up a few of the Marshall Islands before handing over a space station.

Bah, never mind that; Lifeline is a good fast read, but it’s nothing special nor particularly original. That is, if you discount the general nastiness of the first third of the book, where a nuclear war seems to be the least disturbing element of the story.

First published in 1990, chances are good that Lifeline is now comfortably out of print. It’s not particularly worth hunting down, but it can hit the spot if ever you crave hard-SF with a slightly bitter edge.

Lethal Exposure, Kevin J. Anderson & Doug Beason

Ace, 1998, 290 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00536-5

One can say a lot of not-so-complimentary things about Kevin J. Anderson. He’s one of the bestselling SF authors of the nineties, but -most will hasten to add-, he’s done so on the shoulders of some pretty powerful institutions: Anderson wrote or co-wrote at least a dozen novels in the Star Wars and X-Files universe… Lately, he’s been shamelessly exploiting the church of Scientology by writing a novel in “collaboration” with the late L. Ron Hubbard. A prolific writer, Anderson also has time for a substantial body of more original work.

He collects collaborators like others collect cars and the quality of the work often has a direct link with the other writer. With Doug Beason, Anderson writes very-hard-science techno-thrillers, from DIE-HARD clone (the rather good Ignition) to post-apocalyptic drama (Ill Wind) to, finally, a series of novel starring Craig Kriedent, high-tech FBI agent.

The formula is simple: Imagine a FBI agent specialized in high-tech crimes. Give him two competent sidekicks, one ex-squeeze and an ambiguous girlfriend. Make them resolve murders in high-tech locations. Pack in as many scientific details as the average hard-SF fan will tolerate. Add some more action, near-future technology and write up everything in a limpid style that’s impossible to resist.

I wasn’t too fond of the first Kriedent novel (Virtual Destruction), mostly for the usage of gratuitous pathos and less-clever-than-they-thought plotting. The second book (Fallout) was closer to techno-thriller than to crime fiction, and had the benefit of better action scenes as well as a very memorable finale. Lethal Exposure tops both by combining the best elements of the first two books.

In the opening pages of Lethal Exposure, a scientist working after-hours at Chicago’s Fermilab particle accelerator is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation. He calmly diagnoses himself as a living corpse and turns himself in. His physician is Trish LeCroix, Craig Kriedent’s ex-girlfriend. She calls him up, convinced that it was no accident. Kriedent quickly arrives on the scene, and then the action really starts.

This time around, the mystery elements are combined with action sequences to produce a mystery/thriller hybrid. Since we’re comfortable with the main characters, the authors are allowed to spend some time developing secondary players and allowing their protagonists to react more naturally. Technically, Lethal Exposure is better-paced than its predecessors, balancing the action with just enough mystery. The ending is surprisingly emotional, though one loose end is still dangling by the end of the novel.

Inevitably, some will feel disappointed at some of the shortcuts taken by the authors. The romantic triangle is given scant attention and the murder attempts are as unbelievable as a direct Chicago-New Delhi Concord flight. (Refuelling? Continental United States supersonic overflight? Demand? Facilities?)

But no matter; for an open-ended series novel, Lethal Exposure is a darn good read. It’s the best of the Kriedent so far, and the last pages give plenty of openings for a series of sequels. Of course, it remains to be seen if Beason and Anderson want to continue, (contrarily to the previous two books, there is no mention of a follow-up book) but if they can keep the same level of quality than with Lethal Exposure, fans are sure to follow.

Ignition, Kevin J. Anderson & Doug Beason

Forge, 1997, 320 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-312-86270-9

EARLY 1996

—Hi, what’s up?
—Thought about our next book a bit. You know that we’ve got to deliver another thriller to Tor/Forge in the coming year.-
—Yeah, something a bit meatier than our Craig Kreident franchise for Ace.
—Exactly. So, I was watching DIE HARD yesterday, and-
—Ah yeah, pretty good movie. We could do something like this.
—Exactly. So, I began thinking where terrorists could do some damage, and came up with something pretty wild. Ready?  How about Cape Kennedy?
—Terrorists take over a shuttle? That’s a great hook!
—Thanks. Now, I guess we’d have some kind of shuttle flight-
—-so we could show off our Hard-SF background with the technical details-
—Yeah, and terrorists would threaten to blow up the shuttle on the launch pad while the hero would run around, killing bad guys and saving the shuttle.
—Terrific premise. We can do something with this.
—The best thing is that there’s plenty of explosives around.
—Right! A few rockets here and there, some hi-tech weapons…
—Not to mention helicopters and APCs and the shuttle!
—We could even sell the movie rights to Hollywood!
—But no reviewer would miss the connection.
—Hey, this one’s for the money, right?
—Uh-huh. So, back to the premise: We could always make the hero -an astronaut- a bit more vulnerable, something to chuck off in the movie-
—Like, oh, having him with a broken leg?
—Oh, come on, he’d be grounded- Hey, that’s not bad! He’d be pissed-
—Yeah! And then he’s wobble along blowing up terrorists (laughs)
—We could make this work. And what about a love interest?
—Uh… Got it! An ex-lover of his that’s gone up to flight control. Traditional fiery relationship. But then they kiss and make up.
—I like it. How about a villain?
—Oh, don’t know yet… We’ll get around to that later. I just want to make sure we’ve got a good amazon female henchman assassin character somewhere.
—That about wraps it. I’ll draft the outline and send it to New York-
—No special effort for style, I guess.
—Nah. We nailed it with Ill Wind: No need to waste style on thrillers. Descriptive is good enough. Gotta keep them turning the pages!
—That’s the goal! Okay, talk to you later.

MARCH 1998

Anderson and Beason probably never had the above conversation, but they succeeded in producing a perfectly entertaining thriller with Ignition. Okay, so the villain is simultaneously hilarious and bland, the conclusion is dragged-out and the image of a hero with a broken leg is often more comical than inspiring, but the remainder of the novel isn’t half-bad. A couple of big explosions, action scenes and classic wish-fulfillment makes this an engrossing read. Should make an interesting movie.

Fallout, Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason,

Ace, 1997, 306 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00425-3

Craig Kreident is back!

The High-tech FBI special agent, after a moderately entertaining debut in Virtual Destruction, makes a stronger appearance in Fallout, the second is what will probably become a series comparable to Cussler’s “Dirk Pitt” sequence.

This time around, the plot doesn’t hinge around virtual reality, or mentally deficient nuclear workers. Instead, Anderson and Beason takes us deep into two of America’s most secret installations: The Nevada Nuclear Test Site and Area 51, the Air Force’s shadowy research installation.

This book also has a different tone that the first tome: While a murder still has to be solved, Kreident must now deal with a right-wing extremist terrorist group: The book opens with the FBI trying to prevent an explosion at the Hoover dam. The result is a techno-thriller much closer to “thriller” than to the mystery genre.

Fallout is more exciting, more interesting, and (if possible) readable in even less time than Virtual Destruction, which was already quite a page-turner.

Otherwise, character development is only adequate, at the exception of Kreident-subordinate agent Goldfarb, which figures prominently in a few action sequences. Despite everything, Kreident remains likable, and it’s a joy to root for government guys once in a while.

This is no surprise, since both authors have worked in government offices (Beason is an Air Force officer). Jabs at INDEPENDENCE DAY are thrown, and other UFO-freaks beliefs are equally skewered. The background has a distinctive “authentic” feel to it, which marks a nice change to the usually unbelievable thriller setups.

On the other hand, the final terrorist motivation is quite laughable. This is probably intentional by Beason and Anderson, but any thriller fan knows that plausibility has a quality of its own. Terrorist motivation is not the only disappointing aspect of the finale: Paige Mitchell (the almost-girlfriend character) is also terribly passive, falling back too easily in the so despicable “helpless female” role. However, the other aspects of the resolution are suitably well-handled, and suspense runs fairly high.

Fallout would make an interesting movie, but is probably too smart for that. It remains to be seen whether the next volumes of the series will manage to be as interesting as this one. Especially fascinating is the problem of being able to involve Paige Mitchell in every Craig Kreident investigation. That should be interesting to watch.

Even when considered absolutely, and not only in comparison with its predecessor, Fallout fares pretty well. It had the required action, stupid mistakes, evil terrorist groups and other hallmarks of the genre. Since it’s readable in a blink, it might be a better choice to loan it at the library rather than buy it full-price.

Craig Kreident can come back any time he likes.

* * *

Briefly: Anderson and Beason’s Ill Wind is even better, something predictable given the catastrophic and post-catastrophic theme of the book (this time: anti-polymer microbes ravage the world’s oil and plastics) and the fact that it’s a one-shot novel. Points given for realistic science, clean prose and likable characters. I’ll quibble that the novel ends too soon (Sequel possible? Oh no!) for any sense of durable consequences. Good reading for fans of the sub-genre and/or the authors.

Virtual Destruction, Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason

Ace, 1996, 327 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00308-7

There are times where I really wish for honesty in advertising. Or at least in cover blurbs. Even though Virtual Destruction isn’t as bad as some horrendously misleading cover copy I’ve seen, it still angers me to see bad labelling like this-

but perhaps the only problem is in my own mind. You see, no one will contest the affirmation that Virtual Destruction is Science-Fiction. To wit:

At the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, scientists (ie: computer nerds) are putting the last touches on a revolutionary technology: Virtual Reality. But as the date of an important demonstration approaches, the project leader is found in the VR room, dead. Is it a murder, or not? And who did it?

Much like the likeable Walter Jon Williams thriller Days of Atonement, Virtual Destruction uses a near-future locale as background to a “murder mystery”. But whereas Days of Atonement had a resolution that hinged specifically on science-fiction, Virtual Destruction mostly uses VR as a prop… the real guts of the novel are elsewhere.

There are other problems too. While Days of Atonement was a solid thriller that stood on its own from beginning to end, I got the impression that Virtual Destruction was nothing more than the start of the “Craig Kreident, High-Tech FBI Agent” series. While Kreident is an enormously pleasant protagonist, he’s not as well developed as his Days of Atonement counterpart. This is probably intentional, since series hero can’t have all the stuffing knocked out of them in volume one, hmm?

I will be forthright in saying that I do not enjoy reading about retarded (or even “dim”) characters, of which there are two in Virtual Destruction and whose plight is milked for maximum pathos. But that’s just me.

In the end, Virtual Destruction might be better suited to another category: “Best Sellers”. Like it or not, I interpret Virtual Destruction as an attempt from Anderson and Beason to write accessible, wide-span yarns like Crichton, Cussler and the like.

It’s a successful attempt, mostly. As said before, the character of Agent Kreident is sufficiently sympathetic to engage the reader. The prose style is fast and readable. The SF trappings are meticulously described, and there’s an impression of authenticity from the novel.

The resolution, for reasons that will remain a spoiler, is a letdown on several fronts. Some plot threads are dropped without adequate resolution. I liked the fact that one potential flaw was turned into a virtue by one plot resolution. On the other hand, a certain scene intended to be powerful came up as flat because… get this… virtual means not real!

The biggest flaw of this novel is that it’s surprisingly fluffy. Light, escapist, bestselling entertainment. That’s not a bad thing per se… if you’ve got the right expectations.

Still, it’s better than the usual Crichton.

[Jan’98: There is indeed going to be a “Craig Kreident” series of Techno-Thrillers. I intend to read’em as soon as they come out at my local library.]