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"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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For the most part, that works for me. But every now and then something reminds me that I’m only seeing part of the universe.
Most recently, it was reading The Planck Factor by Debbi Mack, which asks a basic question: what if Einstein got that whole e=mc2 thing wrong? What if the velocity of light was NOT a constant, and thus nuclear devices could be n-times more powerful?
Setting aside the dubious science here, the obvious answer (for a writer anyway) is that government agencies, spies, supervillains, terrorists, and—scariest of all—competing academics would kill for those results. In The Planck Factor, that’s the premise that young grad student Jessica Evans uses as the basis for her first novel. As the book alternates between Jessica’s story and that of her protagonist Alexis, Jessica starts to see terrifying similarities between her own situation and that of her fictional creation. Both are in danger from unknown forces, forced to flee for their lives, while family and friends are also in mortal peril.
At the heart of both stories is the random scientific “fact” that Jessica extrapolated from a chance footnote. In her novel, that is enough to put Alexis into danger. In Jessica’s real world, research for the novel has cost her friend’s life and sent his killers after her.
There were so many things I liked about this little novella-length book. The converging chapters of Jessica’s life and the developing story of her novel were nicely done. The deliberate similarities between her character and that of her creation might have been confusing, but they were cleverly set apart by the use of different fonts and chapter headings. Then there were the sections from the mysterious Kevin, whose role isn’t revealed until the last pages. And there was a final twist in the very last page that I never saw coming.
Having said that, I have to admit there were things that bothered me as I was reading. The science itself was threadbare and unsubstantiated—but I could live with that. The thinly-veiled but constant discussion of the writing process was annoying in its determination to state (and restate) the obvious. But, given the fact that Jessica is a graduate student writing a thesis on “how genre fiction could have literary value”, I suppose I could also live with that. Even the obvious plot holes such as the observed similarities between ‘fictional’ Alexis and ‘real’ Jessica which seem so significant but are ultimately never explained by anything other than coincidence might just be a literary device. Smaller plot sink holes in the fictional book (such as the part where Alexis is supposed to put herself in grave danger in order to find out where some notes are hidden—while the person who hid them was actually standing right next to her) could be explained by the fictional novel being a work in progress.
But there were two things that troubled me. The first was the gigantic and (as far as I could tell) completely unsubstantiated leap where government agencies go from worries about what might be in Jessica’s book to closing down the Golden Gate Bridge and preparing for ‘the biggest catastrophe in modern history’—without a single fact or substantiated clue to back it up. There were further logic-less leaps that left me scratching my head (but I don’t want to mention them for fear of spoilers).
The second thing that annoyed me was that I just didn’t like Jessica. She came across as self-centered and somewhat whiny. When she gets a phone warning and starts to worry that someone is stalking her, she doesn’t hesitate to go straight to the police. Twice. But when a friend who was trying to impress her by helping with her research is killed, she “doesn’t want to get involved”.
By now, I was down several stars in my appreciation of the novel. And then I came to that last page with its stunning final twist. Wait a minute… Does that mean what I think it means? I read it several times. Then I went back and re-read several sections of the book. And I realized that the entire story within a story had been turned inside out. Back went the stars.
Overall, I’d say The Planck Factor might not be a perfect book, but it does have a perfect final twist.
I reviewed The Planck Factor for Rosie’s Book Review Team
**I received this book from the publisher or author to expedite an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.**
This thriller (technothriller according to Amazon) tells a complex story, or rather, tells several not so complex stories in a format that can make readers’ minds spin. A thriller about a student who decides, on a dare, to write a genre book (a thriller) and whose life becomes itself another thriller, one that seems to mix spies, conspiracies, terrorism, the possibility of the end of the world, and it all relates to quantum physics. (Or, as she describes it in the book: “…a suspense story with a hint of science fiction and a touch of espionage at its heart.”) The parallelisms between the story of Jessica Evans (the protagonist) and that of her fictional character, Alexis, become more convoluted and puzzling as the book progresses and the astounding coincidences will ring some alarm bells until we get to the end and… It is a bit difficult to talk about the book in depth without giving away any spoilers, but I’ll try my hardest.
This book will be particularly interesting for writers, not only because of its storytelling technique (talk about metafiction) but also because of the way the main protagonist (a concept difficult to define but Jessica is the one who occupies the most pages in the book and her story is told in the first person) keeps talking (and typing) about books and writing. No matter how difficult and tough things get, she has to keep writing, as it helps her think and it also seems to have a therapeutic effect on her. It is full of insider jokes and comments familiar to all of us who write and read about writing, as it mentions and pokes fun at rules (“Show, don’t tell. Weave in backstory. Truisms, guides, rules, pointers—call them what you will… And adverbs. Never use an adverb.”) and also follows and at the same time subverts genre rules (we have a reluctant heroine, well, two, varied MacGuffins and red herrings, mysteries, secrets, traitors and unexpected villains… and, oh yes, that final twist).
Each one of the chapters starts with the name of the person whose point of view that chapter is told about —apart from Alexis’s story, told in the third person, written in different typography, and usually clearly introduced, there are chapters from the point of view of two men who follow Jessica, so we know more than her, another rule to maintain suspense, and also from the point of view of somebody called Kevin, who sounds pretty suspicious— and apart from Jessica’s, all the rest are in the third person, so although the structure is somewhat complex and the stories have similarities and a certain degree of crossover, there is signposting, although one needs to pay attention. Overall, the book’s structure brought to my mind Heart of Darkness (where several frames envelop the main story) or the Cabinet of Dr Caligary (although it is less dark than either of those).
As you read the story, you’ll probably wonder about things that might not fit in, plot holes, or events that will make you wonder (the usual trope of the amateur who finds information much easier than several highly specialised government agencies is taken to its extremes, and some of the characteristics of the writing can be amusing or annoying at times, although, whose story are we reading?) but the ending will make you reconsider the whole thing. (I noticed how the characters never walked, they: “slid out”, “shimmied out”, “pounded”, “bounded down the steps”, “clamored down”…) As for the final twist, I suspected it, but I had read several reviews by other members of the team and kept a watchful eye on the proceedings. I don’t think it will be evident to anybody reading the story totally afresh.
The novel is too short for us to get more than a passing understanding and connection with the main character, especially as a big part of it is devoted to her fictional novel, (although the first person helps) and there are so many twists, secrets and agents and double-agents that we do not truly know any of the secondary characters well enough to care. Action takes precedence over psychological depth and although we might wonder about alliances, betrayals and truths and lies, there are no complex motivations or traumas at play.
Due to the nature of the mystery, the novel will also be of interest to those who enjoy stories with a scientific background, particularly Physics (although I don’t know enough about quantum physics to comment on its accuracy). A detailed knowledge of the subject is not necessary to follow the book but I suspect it will be particularly amusing to those who have a better understanding of the theory behind it. (The author does not claim expertise and thanks those who helped her with the research in her acknowledgements). The book also touches on serious subjects, including moral and ethical issues behind scientific research and the responsibility of individuals versus that of the state regarding public safety. But do not let that put you off. The book is a short, fast and action-driven story that requires a good attention span and will be particularly enjoyed by writers and readers who enjoy complex, puzzle-like mysteries, or more accurately, those who like stories that are like Russian dolls or Chinese boxes.
I enjoyed this book that is clever and knowing, and I’d recommend in particular to readers who are also writers or enjoy books about writers, to those who like conspiracies, spies and mysteries, especially those with a backstory of science and physics, and to people who prefer plot-driven books and who love Hitchcock, Highsmith and Murder She Wrote.
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