Tor, 1998, 342 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-54038-7
You can call it the Crichton manoeuvre or the techno-thriller side-slip. But if its title may be in dispute, the move itself is highly familiar: If you’re a hard-SF writer looking at the bestselling list, it can be hard to figure out why techno-thrillers can reach such a big audience when their level of technical verisimilitude is either equal or inferior to traditional nuts-and-bolts science-fiction. Perhaps you voice your frustration to your agent, who then suggest that you try writing a conventional thriller. Perhaps the idea comes up by itself. In either case, the end result is a present-day thriller with gobs of actual science, emblazoned by the name of an author better known for SF. Examples abound, from Gregory Benford’s Artifact (1985) to Bruce Sterling’s The Zenith Angle (2004), with no end in sight.
In this case, it’s SF sensation Nancy Kress (Beggars in Spain, Brain Rose, etc.) who jumps on the thriller train, trying her luck and commercial appeal with Stinger, a self-styled thriller of biological terror. The cover blurbs does the rest: “Has a fringe hate group bio-engineered a weapon to decimate the black population?”, “Move over Robin Cook”, “it’s a bit like The X-Files with more interesting characters and a more sensible plot.”
At first blush, there’s a lot to like in Stinger. The prose is mass-market clean, and the action efficiently centres itself on two capable characters with enough flaws to make them endearing: Robert Cavanaugh is a fine FBI agent, displaced to Maryland against his will to fulfil staffing requirements in a state where nothing usually happens. His biography includes literary studies, a penchant for symbolic doodling and a failed relationship that still tortures him. Also up for protagonist status is Melanie Anderson, a black CDC expert with a chip on her shoulder that’s big enough to balance an entire history of racial oppression.
What brings them together is a shocking discovery: A mosquito-borne disease that causes fatal heart problems pretty much exclusively in black victims. Despite their problems, despite the fact that they don’t like each other, running against their supervisors’ wishes, the two vow to discover who is at the origin of the plague.
As a premise for a thriller, it’s hard to do better: Racial tensions always lurk beneath the surface, and there’s no surer way to prod at people’s sensitive prejudices that by raising the possibility that wholesale racial warfare may be possible. As you would expect from a hard-SF writer, Kress bolsters her notion with a convincing amount of technical detail reaching deep down bioengineering jargon. The rest of the novel’s verisimilitude is just as convincing, whether it’s in areas of law-enforcement or in how to collect wild mosquitoes for study. As the action briefly moves away from Maryland to another continent, we’re reminded that Kress can write, and that her sense of place is top notch. Her chops as a writer show up more obviously in agent Cavanaugh’s meaningful doodling and literary musings.
But despite all of the above advantages, Stinger only manages a whimper as a thriller. As much as I hate to write it, the main problem with it is that it’s too cerebral. The novel is almost completely free of action sequences, car chases, gun-play or just about anything you may remember from thriller movies. Characters talk and talk and talk and investigate a bit. The development of the novel is strictly intellectual, with procedural antagonists that are so distant that they may not exist. On one hand, it’s probably how things would unfold in the real world. On another, it does mean that you can accuse Kress of not delivering the goods, especially with the “thriller” label so prominent on the spine.
Maybe it’s an occupational hazard: hard-SF writers may be so used to the indulgence of SF readers in tolerating purely intellectual action that they may not realize the extra level of spectacle that seems to be de rigueur for modern thrillers. As it stands, Stinger seems a bit limp, a bit tepid. Technical details isn’t enough: some action and suspense would be nice.
As a convinced SF reader, it’s hard to avoid the idea, when reading those SF-infused techno-thrillers, that the author is slumming out of genre. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that modern techno-thrillers requires more research efforts than big SF novels (if only to keep it coherent with the real world), but to which end? Yes, we wish all SF authors the best of luck and embarrassing amounts of money. Sure, it’s possible that another Dean R. Koontz may emerge from the SF field. (Except that Koontz was never all that comfortable in the field.) But in the meantime, such attempts from hard-SF writers to write mass-market techno-thrillers usually end the same way: after one, two or three such novels, they’re back in the friendly SF ghetto with barely any mention of the side-step.