Wednesday, March 26, 2014

read: Apocalypse: A Novel (3 stars)

Apocalypse: A NovelApocalypse: A Novel by Dean Crawford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At its core, a techno-thriller needs three things: a high concept (technology or device de jour), an irresistible force (the villain and his scheme) and an immovable object (the hero and his convictions). All three have to be believable to make the book hold together. The rest -- characters, plot, settings and writing -- are what make the book enjoyable. Dean Crawford's "Apocalypse" has all of the above, in various measures, and turns out to be a reasonably enjoyable read.

The device de jour in this case has something to do with time travel, and it takes pretty much the first half of the novel to get any kind of traction into what that's about. The latter half of the novel continues to ruminate on this concept, pretending to go into details (though sometimes contradicting itself) about how that might be accomplished. It's a high concept alright, and tons of fun (until someone gets hurt), and complete hogwash if you think about it hard enough.

The irresistible force in this case is Joaquin Abell, who the world sees as a philanthropist. But whose true motivations, of course, turn out to be questionable at best. He plans to use the time travel technology for the betterment of mankind. The problem is that he isn't all that interested in what mankind has to say about the matter or how many casualties there are along the way.

The immovable object is Ethan Warner (and his partner Nicola Lopez) a freelance private investigator with government ties and a suitably unfortunate background that is alluded to from time to time, but doesn't affect the enjoyment of the current situation. They're brought in when one of Abell's scientists is suspected of killing his own family, but calls the police himself and causes quite a stir when he seems to accurately predict the future. He inexplicably insists that they call in Warner to get to the bottom of things.

What works: The time travel concept is presented with just enough hand-waving to make it seem plausible enough for the purposes of the story. It is used to good effect to create an intricate plot that mostly holds together over the course of the story. There are no egregious bouts of info-dump to spoil the pacing. Just a few pages here and there that could have been pared down a bit more. The large cast of characters is well wrought and well used, though I think there are a few too many. The fight and battle scenes are pretty detailed and realistic.

What didn't work: I think both the character problem (which led to a few pacing issues) and some glaring issues I have with the author's prose could have been remedied by a couple more ruthless rounds of editing. There are some turns of phrase that are repeated, paragraph after paragraph, page after page, as the author keeps trying to string together too many thoughts into a single sentence. And as he stumbles his way in and out of situations, instead of just letting them transpire. To top it off, there is a glaring violation of the story's own rules about how time travel works. For a page or two, I thought the writer was going to turn it into a certain kind of plot twist, but instead he blundered right into and through it, and left it lying there, ignored, as he wrapped things up. Oh well, it wouldn't be a time travel story without a paradox of causality.

All the good stuff adds up to at least a four-star novel. Some rigorous editing would have gotten it there. With one star knocked off for the bad stuff, this is still an enjoyable three-star book. It's definitely something to read on the plane or beach this summer.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review.

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read: A Certain Ambiguity: A Mathematical Novel (3 stars)

A Certain Ambiguity: A Mathematical NovelA Certain Ambiguity: A Mathematical Novel by Gaurav Suri
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is another book I had high hopes for, based on the blurb and the recommendation of a friend. It has math. It has philosophy. Since those subjects both interest me, it sounded full of potential. But I wound up disappointed. I was so disappointed, I almost didn't finish the book.

My main disappointment is with the plot, which was paper-thin and obvious from the beginning. There's this guy and he, through a few quickly dispensed situations, winds up in college with graduation day approaching. A series of unconvincing events puts him in a class that is part math class, part philosophy discussion. He makes new friends. He meets a girl. Already you know that they will discuss math. They will discuss philosophy. He might get involved with the girl.

So they do all that. The author tries to make things more interesting by adding the sudden discovery that the guy's beloved grandfather spent time in jail and so he has to research that, too. But all that plot description makes it sound more interesting than it really is, because that takes up about 25% of the words in the book. The other 75% is taken up with endless dialogs about math and philosophy, either presented in the classroom, or a jail cell (while a judge and the grandfather work through the motivations for the grandfathers 'objectionable' behavior), or at various contrived situations around campus.

At various points the endless dialog, which is always in language far to lofty to come out of ordinary, human mouths, is broken up by fictionalized letters and journal entries from historical mathematicians and philosophers. These are also written in language either too lofty or too modern to be based in reality. The contrived and awkward situations, discussions and documents all kept me from connecting with the story and characters and really enjoying the ride.

This book would be improved by either ditching the 'novel' portion or making it stronger. As it is, the math exposition, while interesting and central to the theme, overwhelm the fiction.

The only reason this gets 3 stars, rather than 2, is because of the intriguing subjects. It did get me to thinking deep thoughts, which I believe was the point of it. But the lack of personal connection and the awkwardly scholarly language kept it from approaching 4 stars. Only recommended if you like math (or are unoffended by it) and are likewise unoffended by flowery dialog and thoughts that do not reflect the way real people behave.

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