Monday, July 22, 2013

“The next step in human evolution”

by David Wellington

David Wellington’s latest novel, Chimera, opens with a prison break. Except, Camp Putnam isn’t a typical prison:
“Sergeant Brian Lourdes had a pretty good security clearance. Not enough to know why those seven men had been locked away so tight. Not enough to know why they were so dangerous they could never be set free. But enough to know what would happen if they ever did get out. Enough to know it could mean the end of America.”
That’s page two of what may be horror writer Wellington’s break-out thriller. So, right from the get-go, readers are told the stakes are high. We learn a few other disquieting facts about these escaped “detainees” in that first chapter. They dodge bullets moving at inhuman speed and gaze at the world through solid black eyes. Cue the eerie music!

Next the action moves to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and the office of Captain Jim Chapel. Chapel, a veteran of Afghanistan, works at INSCOM, the army’s Intelligence and Security Command handling oversight on weapons system acquisitions. As the novel opens, he’s not exactly field-ready, having lost his left arm in combat. But receiving new orders he notes:
“DIA was the Defense Intelligence Agency, the top level of the military intelligence pyramid. DX was the Directorate for Defense Counterintelligence and HUMINT—HUMINT being Human Intelligence, or good old-fashioned spycraft. DX was the group that used to give him his orders back when he was a theater operative in Afghanistan, but he hadn’t worked for them in a long time—these days his work was handled directly by INSCOM and he hadn’t so much as spoken to anyone in the DIA in five years.”
Therefore, Chapel is an odd choice to track down and, well, neutralize these escaped detainees. What little he learns about them is deeply disturbing. He’s working mostly in the dark however, repeatedly told by superiors that information is on a “need to know” basis. Chapel’s given two things to help track the fugitives down. The first is a list of targets the detainees may be going after. And the second is a “guardian angel” whispering in his ear:
“Captain, I’ll always be with you. But this is as physical as I get. The sweet little voice in your ear, making helpful comments and keeping you company. I’ve already been briefed on your operation, and I’m looking for ways to help right now.”
So, that’s the set-up, and it’s a good one. The tale melds a bit of speculative science with a whole lot of action. The entire premise is about pace, pace, pace, and things move along at a fair clip. Mr. Wellington isn’t Michael Crichton, and while there’s a veneer of science to the tale, for better or worse, it never gets bogged down in facts or exposition.

Given the title of the novel, I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that in the course of his
investigation, Chapel learns that, “In genetics a chimera is an organism that has more than one kind of DNA in the same body.” I had to chuckle a bit over that (much like one of the novel’s central characters) because this tale is a bit of a chimera itself. I can think of any number of other novels it owes some of its DNA to. For instance, in his Sigma Force series James Rollins has written about a protagonist with a high-tech prosthetic arm for years, and Mark Alpert mined that territory as well in his recent science thriller Extinction. As for chimeras, Jeremy Robinson went to town with them in Island 731. Wellington’s creations are far less over-the-top, and I’m not implying that he actually borrowed from any of these writers. There are only so many new ideas under the sun. Some parts of Chimera (such as assistant “Angel” who really kept me guessing for the duration of the novel) feel fresher than others. The romantic sub-plot was neither the best nor worst I’d seen, though the whole “good guy hero just looking for love” motivation felt fairly superficial.

As I mentioned above, the novel moves swiftly. Chimera is more streamlined than a typical Rollins or Preston/Child thriller in that it’s a single narrative thread, making it a quick read—very much the sort of thing to make a long plane ride fly by. There were moments when I felt the plot was getting contrived, but author Wellington often boldly addressed these objections heads on, somewhat overcoming the issue. His protagonists are appealing enough—good news as the novel’s subtitle, “A Jim Chapel Mission” seems to indicate we’ll be seeing Captain Chapel again. Additionally, Mr. Wellington deserves brownie points for creating some strong and interesting female characters.

A science thriller-writing pal of mine once commented that “Writing techno-thrillers is really hard.” (Pithy, he is.) But, yes, it really is. I’ve seen a lot of dismal examples over the years. Chimera certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s promising. I’m quite looking forward to the next Jim Chapel mission.

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