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Singularity

by Bill DeSmedt

(Per Aspera, $25.95, 502 pages, hardcover; November 8 2004. Audiobook edition [not covered in this review] available as a free podcast from Podiobooks.)

Review by John Grant

The first book from a new Seattle publisher that aims to compete head-on with the cover scanestablished "big boys", Per Aspera Press, Singularity is an effective technothriller that stamps DeSmedt's name on the field in no uncertain manner.

Marianna Bonaventure is an inexperienced agent for CROM, a US covert agency charged with keeping track of the nuclear materials and knowhow left lying around after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and -- more to the point -- with attempting to make sure none of it falls into the hands of terrorists or rogue nations. (Yes, there's an irony in the "rogue nations" part of this.) She finds that there is something suspicious going on around the enigmatic Russian industrialist Arkady Grishin, who makes his base of operations on a vast ocean liner, the Rusalka. In order to help her probe this mystery, she ropes in Jonathan Knox, a high-priced civilian business analyst who has a great knack for solving problems through near-instinctive pattern-recognition. At first reluctant about everything to do with the caper except the charms of Ms Bonaventure, Knox soon finds himself an enthusiastic participant in the investigation, as it becomes clearer and clearer that the nature of Grishin's ambitions is world-affectingly grim.

Meanwhile, on the far side of the globe, Texan physicist Jack Adler is bemused to the extent to which his Russian colleagues on an expedition into the wilds of Siberia to examine the region of the Tunguska Event of 1907 are resistant to his theory of its cause. That theory posits that the earth was hit by a mini black hole, a remnant from the Big Bang. It's a perfectly valid real-world hypothesis; Adler's extension of it is that the black hole may very well have taken up a complex spiralling orbit within the body of our planet. He finds what appears to be proof of this, but then all of his records and equipment are destroyed in a murderous attack.

Through many complicated routes, Bonaventure and Knox, placed as spies aboard the Rusalka, come close to hitting on Adler's theory independently, and in due course their suspicions are confirmed through a direct electronic contact with Adler himself. Grishin and his scientists have developed a way of capturing the black hole, stripping it temporarily of its event horizon, and using the naked singularity as a time machine whereby they can alter history to their own gain and human civilization's enormous disbenefit.

As in any technothriller, there are two elements to this novel, the techno part -- the scientific/technological underpinning -- and the thriller part.

It's in the techno part that DeSmedt really shines. He has an astonishing gift for explaining really quite abstruse physical and technological concepts with clarity and immediacy, and in making such explanations both fascinating and -- let's be forthright here -- enormous fun. Even if you're perfectly au fait with current ideas about black holes and their physics, the novel is worth reading just for the flamboyant joy of these expository passages. DeSmedt is clearly passionately in love with these areas of physics, and he succeeds completely in conveying that passion to the reader.

Similarly, his extrapolations from present into near-future technology are entirely convincing -- at least to this reader. I finished this book with my mind in a total jumble as to which of the communication/surveillance technologies depicted are current in the real world and which are merely products of DeSmedt's controlled imagination; all of them seemed equally plausible. As for the technologies involved in black-hole capture, they too seemed highly feasible. It's a while since my disbelief has been so convincingly suspended by a technothriller.

DeSmedt is less accomplished in the thriller element of the novel, but luckily he's saved by another of his great skills: the creation of excellently sympathetic characters. Marianna Bonaventure is a wonderful creation; she stands out in a genre where the smart, kickass, yummy female has come to be regarded as little more than a standard part of the toolkit. This is because all of her many strengths as a person are in part a product of the weaknesses she also possesses. At first she completely flummoxes Knox, who simply cannot find a way to relate to her complexities, his reactions to her beauty and her personality all clashing with each other. The reader's reactions are likely to be similar, until at last, probably more than halfway through this long book, it becomes possible to understand, at all levels, this thoroughly three-dimensional -- and certainly very engaging -- individual.

Knox himself is no mean fictional creation. He's somewhat reminiscent of an Ellery Queen for the twenty-first century in his powers of ratiocination and his veneer of general geekiness, but he's a far more real person than Ellery Queen could ever be. DeSmedt's semi-major characters, too, leap from the page: Sasha, the old friend of Knox's who has compromised his idealism in the pursuit of entrancing technology; Galina, another old acquaintance of Knox, a tragic figure whose love for children is brutally matched by her inability to have a child of her own, and who, unknowing of Grishin's fell motives, is the primary technological brain behind his endeavours; and Mycroft, a.k.a., Dr Finley Laurence, the super-analyst and cybernautics genius to whom Knox turns when even his own analytical powers prove insufficient. Even Bonaventure's boss, the shoot-first-think-later bureaucratic numbskull Pete Aristos, has a delightful sense of realness to him. Only the character intended as our heroes' ultimate focus of dread, Yuri, Grishin's murderous sidekick, is a bit of a cypher; in essence, he's Jaws from the James Bond movies but without any of the redeeming characteristics. Grishin likewise seems to have been drawn from Central Casting.

Perhaps Yuri in particular epitomizes the novel's weakness as a thriller. The thug-dodging and general hijinks are all perfectly competently done, but they lack the marvelous originality of the rest of the novel: you find yourself aching for each "exciting bit" to be over so you can back to the really exciting stories being told -- the next link in the scientific chain, or what's happening in the faux pas-strewn mutual circling going on between Bonaventure and Knox. As implied above, it's because of the enormous strength of these aspects -- the scientific and the emotional -- that the novel swings grippingly along at the high pace that it does; the relative weakness of the adventure aspects, their resorting-to-the-default aura, becomes more or less irrelevant.

The back of the book bears a stack of cover quotes from noteworthies: Kevin J. Anderson, David Brin, Kip Thorne, Greg Bear and Anthony Olcott. Unusually, I found that I agreed with just about everything they said; for once their enthusiasm isn't merely mega-inflated hype. With one exception. Anderson says: "Singularity juggles Clancy, Crichton, and The Da Vinci Code." The comparison with Crichton is justified, although DeSmedt is by far the better novelist of the two. The comparison with Clancy may be justified: I've never been able to get beyond about twenty pages of any of Clancy's writings, so rely for my knowledge of them on the rather jolly movies. But Singularity has no connection whatsoever with The Da Vinci Code; the comment is quite simply absurd -- a thoroughly egregious example of the base art of rentaquote. In the ordinary way I'd not bother mentioning this piece of folly, but Singularity is something, well, a bit special. Shame on Per Aspera for so cheapening the treasure they've published.

Throughout this review I've been describing Singularity as a technothriller. As will be evident, though, it can also be approached as hard sf. In that context, too, it's eminently successful -- in fact, it's the most readable piece of hard sf, by a quite significant margin, that I've come across in quite a long while, and, enlivened as it is by its glorious characterization (or, to be waspish, by characters at all), should be recommended reading for most of the authors currently working in the subgenre.

However, matters of categorization are best left to the Dryasdusts and Panglosses: technothriller or hard sf, who really cares? It's purely as a work of imaginative fiction, classification be damned, that Singularity should be assessed. Well, put it this way: this is a book you'll want to own in hardback. Even if your more usual taste is for fantasy (well, perhaps not if it's for generic fantasy-by-numbers), you're almost certain to enjoy this one. DeSmedt is a wonderful newcomer to the field, and his debut one of great significance to it. I cannot believe otherwise than that his voice will be given the attention it so emphatically deserves in the years to come.

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