Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Impact - Douglas Preston

I was in the mood for some more fiction, and this was the most promising fare the local library had.

A meteorite hits Earth off the coast of Maine. Two ladies in their early 20s, Abbey and Jackie, take Abbey's father's lobster fishing boat and go hunting for it, hoping to get rich. A host of radioactive gemstones start coming out of Thailand and the U.S. government sends ex-CIA guy Wyman Ford to find the source, since the radioactive material could be ground up and turned in bombs. And Mark Corso inherits his mentor's job at the National Propulsion Facility, and becomes engrossed by some very odd gamma ray data their Mars Mapping Orbiter registered.

As it turns out, the gemstones are coming from, well, not an impact crater, but an exit wound. The rock that hit off the coast of Maine went all the way through the Earth and came out the other side. This ultimately leads Wyman into contact with Abbey, and eventually they get wind of Mark, which only succeeds in putting them in a hitman's crosshairs. And there's still the question of where the meteorite came from, and why it's made of strange matter, and what the deal is with the gamma ray source.

Honestly, the gamma ray source is a MacGuffin. People chase and kill for it without having a strong grasp of what it is. The answers are presented at the end, and neatly wrapped up to be deposited in the trash, unneeded. Preston seems much more interested in having Abbey and Wyman get chased by a hired killer. Abbey is a fairly smart character struggling with deciding on goals or motivation. She went to Princeton but dropped out for failing organic chem, and can't seem to decide what to do next. I think she seized on the meteorite hunt as either an escape back to earlier days, or a quick way to turn things around. It sort of worked for her.

The book as a whole is mediocre, at best. I didn't feel a lot of tension in the chase sequences, probably because I was more curious about the deal with the gamma rays. I didn't expect the book would actually invoke aliens directly, because it seemed at odds with so much of the rest of the story, which is a standard thriller, hunted/hunter situation. Someone had mentioned early in the book the U.S. was very nervous about China beating them to Mars, and so I thought either the Chinese had built something, or at most, they had found something and started fooling around with it. Nope.

I thought there was also a sort of recurring theme of Islamophobia, running through the book. It's the gemstones falling in Muslim terrorists' hands that has the U.S. government most concerned. Preston makes a point of mentioning at the end of the book that the worldwide reveal of the origins of these meteors has united almost everyone in the world in a quest to make preparations, except the Middle East. But then he makes certain to mention Israel is on board with helping to get ready, so he's really just singling out the Muslim part of the world. Maybe that's how it would go, though personally I highly doubt it would be so stark as everyone except adherents of the Islamic faith is ready to resist conquest. Like, no Christians or Hindus or atheists are refusing to get on board? It's just cheap fear-mongering, using them as a convenient punching bag.

Though I should mention it probably doesn't even matter, because in the final chapter we learn that the Earth's various equipment picked up a signal being sent from the gamma ray source to another star system entirely, one which seems to have been destroyed some time ago. So we're meant to take it as the aliens won't be showing up, because they blew themselves up already. See what I mean about the gamma rays being on no real importance?

My question is, are the authorities going to let the rest of the world know, so they can stand down, or just keep everyone in a panic? Wyman expressed the opinion that it's only when people panic that anything gets accomplished, so are they going to keep people scared to see if it causes a dramatic leap forward in technology or cooperation? Sure, they believe that alien threat to be gone, but now they know there have been other intelligent species out there, far more advanced than humanity's present level, so do they figure they might as well keep driving ahead, just in case?

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