Reviewer Steve Moore: Steve is a full-time writer and ex-scientist. Besides his many technical publications, he has written six sci-fi thrillers (one a novel for young adults), many short stories, and frequent comments on writing and the digital revolution in publishing. His interests also include physics, mathematics, genetics, robotics, forensics, and scientific ethics. Follow Here for his WEBSITE.
Author: Thomas Waite
This novel is either a good thriller or so-so sci-fi. Some might call it a techno-thriller. I’m ambivalent. Generally speaking, it’s the kind of book I like to read and write. First, the positives: Waite follows Clancy’s advice and just tells the damn story, so fasten your seatbelt and hold on to your whiskey glass. With only a few exceptions noted below, it’s an entertaining and breathless ride. The negatives: My perception about who’s the protagonist doesn’t match Waite’s. And his theme of cyber warfare doesn’t work well here either because it’s a major distraction and not the real issue. But read on.
Meet the antagonist: Oleg Dernov is a brilliant psychotic sociopath, meaning he’s crazy smart and full of himself. He has Daddy problems. He’s a narcissistic SOB who manipulates people, especially women. But he believes he’s a Russian patriot who can ensure his country will dominate the world by controlling all the Arctic’s oil and natural gas reserves. Historical spoiler alert: that kind of thinking brought Hitler to power.
Meet the protagonist: Gloria Bortnik, Russian ex-Greenpeace leader seduced by Oleg, unwittingly helps him pave the road to world domination. She learns that her infatuation with the idea of Ambient Air Capture (AAC, or the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, the Golden Fleece of environmental science) has implicated her in the murder of a Harvard prof and his wife, the former’s research having led to a practical implementation of AAC. And that’s just the Preface!
Unlike Clancy’s Hunt for Red October, the submarine from the title plays only a minor role. It’s just one of Oleg’s tools as he designs a complete and insanely evil plan to leave every nation in dire circumstances and make Russia the planet’s alpha-wolf. That millions will die doesn’t bother him in the least. Russia’s virtual dictator isn’t mentioned specifically by name, but this novel is current day, so guess who he might be? The depiction of the Russian plutocracy is spot on, as is the depiction of the deadly and competitive triangle now existing between China, Russia, and the U.S. and its European allies.
This sounds a bit like a James Bond movie taking itself seriously, but it’s better than Bond. The overall theme is global warming and how its effects can be hastened along. It’s certainly not that much about cyber terrorism and security, as much as Waite wants to make it so. (This is one example of the perils for an author who tries to shoehorn a book into an already existing series. Sometimes it’s better to write a stand-alone.) The latter is a distraction, but it isn’t the only one. There are a few other items that dulled my reading pleasure too.
In general, this is a veritable stew of different themes, in fact, and, as you ladle, you might miss the little bits of meat contained therein. Is it a disaster story? Is it a tale of greed and power? Is it a study of psychotic behavior on the world stage? Is it a conspiracy story? Is it farfetched? The answer is yes to all questions, so it can seem a wee bit chaotic. But let’s go into some detailed negatives.
(A spoiler alert is in effect for this paragraph.) I could find no political explanation about why the sub sets just off Argentina when it’s taken over. It has to be there, though, for Waite’s plot to work. With a max range of 7360 km for the Trident II missile, a sub can set off Buenos Aires and just reach McMurdo Sound at 7207 km (a more commonly known place name than the target in the book). Also, to suppose that foreign elements can be placed among the crew of a U.S. nuclear submarine is more in the realm of fantasy than sci-fi for anyone who knows security checks in the Defense Department (I’m not talking about contractors here—Snowden proved that leaves a lot to be desired), but let’s accept that premise. In fact, very little happens aboard that sub. I’d like to see more of that and, in particular, how a sub can be taken over remotely. I know cars can. Do subs have those little ports (that can be hacked into) so mechanics can test them at the inspection centers in dry dock?
Let’s talk about Lana Elkins, Waite’s proposed protagonist. Lana is a single mother and cyber security expert. It’s a bit farfetched that NSA allows an ex-employee to spin off her own company and then hires her back as a consultant, but I’m not familiar with the previous books in this series that might explain how this came to be. Lana has a rebellious teenage daughter who wants to steal time from Lana’s work of saving the world. Both mother and daughter are huge distractions, the daughter even more so toward the end. In fact, the ex-husband is a much more interesting character. I’m all for smart, strong, female protagonists (my own fiction is full of them), but Lana just doesn’t work as the main character here.
About the NSA: the man who Lana works for, a mostly ineffectual but cheerleading fellow named Holmes, would never be the lead person in a real world a crisis like he is here, no matter where cyber security efforts are located. Remember, cyber security isn’t really the story here. And in real life, it still isn’t. SONY Pictures wasn’t as important as the story about Snowden’s betrayal of the NSA, no matter what side of this issue you’re on. Cyberattacks are only tools. Illegal and murderous actions, when they follow, are the real story.
Oleg is maybe the quintessential “playing against stereotype” character (that’s about as positive as I can make it). He’s quite acceptable as a villain, but not as a hacker. He’s a spoiled rich kid who would usually not have the drive to pull this plan off, no matter how many Daddy issues or delusions of grandeur he has. Illegal hackers are usually driven by “I’ll do it because I can” and not “I’m rich, but I’ll do it to be even richer”! In fact, if he were saner, he could start a Silicon Valley company and become rich that way without murdering anyone. Sociopaths can still be functioning members of society. Silicon Valley is full of them.
Galina is the true protagonist. Her spunk and determination and final drive to thwart Oleg overshadows anything Lana Elkins or her ex-hubby do in this story. Maybe Waite didn’t intend for that to happen, but it did. She’s a spitfire and a very angry mother bear when it comes to defending her cub, a daughter who has leukemia. That Oleg is completely insensitive to the illness represents part of his downfall. Moreover, she’s the true hacker, and she works hard to bring down Oleg and his band of thugs, which include Russian security agents probably takin orders from you know who and his cronies.
Don’t get me wrong. This is a good yarn many readers won’t want to miss or put down when they start reading. (I read it through in one night, skipping over the sappy parts involving Lana’s daughter. The next two nights, I read it more carefully, taking notes for this review. Maybe I should have only read it once?) You might call Part I a story about a catastrophe and Part II a disaster story, but there are so many sides to this plot that will make you come away thinking, a redeeming quality, to be sure. And let’s just hope the present Russian plutocrats don’t read this and get any ideas—they cause enough trouble in the world as it is.