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The Trigger by Arthur C Clarke and Michael Kube-McDowell
(HarperCollins Voyager, £17.99, 550 pages, hardback; published 1 November 1999. Trade paperback, 550 pages, £11.99; published 5 June 2000. Mass market paperback, 550 pages, £6.99; published 20 November 2000)

In this co-written physics thriller a small company composed of a few elite scientists discover, accidentally, an interesting side-effect to the field theories they are testing. When they hit a certain power level all the explosives within a sizeable radius suddenly ignite. This curious effect leads with slow certainty into a well-developed plot in which the US president and his advisors struggle to take charge of a new technology and use it only for good ends - a fight that draws them unwittingly into an old historical pattern which they are, despite seeing it laid out before them, doomed to repeat.

The combination of Clarke and Kube-McDowell works extremely well. The story, the technology and the philosophical and moral arguments it engenders all fit together in a nearly seamless whole. The pacing of each section is managed with an eye to character as well as science and reason and the only word for the smooth timing and easy-to-follow transits from one point to the next is professional. That the two authors have made a hugely complex problem at all times both exciting and intellectual is a huge achievement.

The problem of the Trigger is the problem of all technological advances - scientific knowledge cannot be hidden, because of the scale upon which knowledge now freely circles the globe. Any useful technology must be raced into working order, in case somebody else gets there first. When your technology is a means of disarmament, it must expand to become a weapon - disarm your foes not yourselves. These defensive objectives determine the course of events whether or not more idealistic possibilities are put forwards. So begins an old and well-known story in which scientists try to guide their discoveries towards humanitarian ends, whilst the military and those who prefer arms rather than reason seek to make what advantage they can in the quickest possible time.

The Trigger technology, which disarms gunmen and bombers, is a political nightmare. It brings a hopeful and moral President (well, you can dream) up against the NAR, the survivalists, the Christian right, his own Defense chiefs and a sizeable quantity of his electorate. To the credit of both writers all the positions within the many arguments here are shown economically and explained well, without losing the thrust of the story. In fact, they are the thrust of the story, as factions develop and begin to act. For a taste of the different sides to gun control, global defense strategies, personal freedom, civil rights and US domestic politics look no further.

With chilling familiarity we are shown each manoeuvre in this lengthy chess game, in which ideas and individuals are players. We follow the Trigger technology as it becomes a directable form of disarmament, a protector of public order, a means to a repulsive new kind of terrorism and finally and most chillingly, as it moves forwards in the laboratory and reveals its true nature as the ... well, I won't tell you this because it's a lovely bit of scientific speculation and a marvellous inevitability which caps off the whole book with a beautifully satisfying conclusion. It's the perfect ending for this.

There are many delights here for the rationally-minded reader, and many scares, as the depth of irrationality and fervour that combine in the US christian populations provide all the most horrible moments when you realise how seriously some of their more crackpot views are taken in high political circles. Secular Europeans will be amazed at how medieval it all seems, but then again, this is part of the point. Although the universe's workings are there to be discovered, human beings are what they are and they make of knowledge what they've always made of it - tools and weapons.

This is Science Fiction for the scientific. It makes no bones about taking sides - the scientist characters are warm, real and hopeful, with the best brains and the most interesting answers and there are no real villains of the piece - only the human need for enemies, for tribes and their susceptibility to fear of others. Human weaknesses compete with human strengths in a struggle that is the great epic of our existence. This is shown in large scale, in small scale and commented on all in one easy sweep of deceptively easy-reading language. If I have a criticism of it, it's that I would have liked to see more characterisation of the major scientists involved and there were one or two unconvincing moments that seemed to exist purely to make a point, but these quibbles hardly matter in the scale of the enterprise. It was a pleasure to read: huge scope, nice detail, clear thinking, cutting-edge science, good scenes, reasonable dialogue, no filler, yum-yum!

A credit to all involved, this book is what near-future SF should be; clever, thoughtful, thrilling and human.

Review by Justina Robson.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

  • nonfiction - more reviews of Arthur C Clarke's work.

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© Justina Robson 8 January 2000