on April 5, 2009
The book cover's proclaiming Karen Dionne as the "next Michael Crichton" caught my attention while simultaneously raising my "Danger, Will Robinson!" alarm bells. I'm still mourning the big man's passing, so when Penguin trotted out "Freezing Point," I approached this author's inaugural work with trepidation, as though contemplating a new puppy following the loss of the family dog. As I should have expected, the book didn't deliver a wholly comparable warm-and-fuzzy, but with a little house breaking and obedience school, there's definitely hope for this newcomer.
Like most thrillers, the book opens with a bang, or rather a splash, as Ben Maki and a group of ice ropers attempt to drag a mountain-sized ice-berg to shore. The berg turns deadly, rolling out of control and swamping the tug, nearly killing everyone aboard. During the ordeal we learn Ben's an accidental corporate wonk with a heart of green. He's working on a Soldyne company project to develop a satellite microwave ice-berg melting operation that will bring trillions of gallons of fresh water to slake a thirty world's growing demands. In the process, he hopes to do well financially while doing good environmentally.
Ben's two positions of course, clash all over the place. Ben's boss, a greedy ego-maniacal giant, physically and metaphorically, stops at nothing to sabotage Ben's plans in favor of his own proposal, some kind of exotic, but dangerous high-atmosphere technology. Meanwhile, PETA-styled activist, Rebecca Sweet, yearns to literally blast her way into the history books by blowing up Ben's project. Even on the home-front, Ben battles oppositional forces, such as when his daughter hogs the family's only shower.
We next find Ben several years later heading a fully developed microwave program, but thwarted for "first water" deployment while awaiting an Antarctic ice shelf to conveniently break free. His boss however, won't wait, and surreptitiously blows one off, nearly killing Zo, a member of a nearby research team. Her group starts to smell a rat, figuratively and literally, when, in addition to exposing Soldyne's treachery, they discover rat descendants from the pole's earliest explorers that have evolved into menacing, pack-hunting super-carnivores.
Meanwhile, Ben has flown to the surface of the newly created berg, where his crew members also encounter the rapacious rats, plus fall victim to a mysterious deadly virus. When he learns the researchers on the mainland's camp display similar disease symptoms, he mounts an ill-fated rescue attempt. Mayhem ushers forth, with scientists pitted against the forces of nature and man, and the future of the world's drinking water hanging in the balance.
Admirably, Dionne deploys reasonably solid science, with tempered conjecture to paint a picture of killer rats, space-age gadgetry, and suffocating cold. For the seasoned Crichton reader however, she occasionally strays into lapses of logic, such as when our heroes swim in sub-zero temperatures, rats catch a speeding boat, and a laboratory burns rapidly to the ground owing to the lack of any central fire suppression system. To her credit, she acknowledges her lack of scientific credentials in the jacket notes.
The plot, while inventive, hit me a bit dubiously, in that it attempts to interleave three seemingly disparate evils: corporate shenanigans, killer rats, and a mysterious disease. I could never figure out where my attention should lie, which detracted from my particularly caring about any. In contrast, Crichton tended to fix on one main challenge, and then weave in the science, social, and political aspects to drive home his point. This book would've benefited from a similar spotlight to let one of the dangers become fully expressed and resolved.
Where Dionne shines is with her characters. Ben lives a conflicted life, feeling he's sold out to corporate interests but appalled at the direction some environmental extremists take. Zo, on the other hand, passionately pursues her benevolent scientific research, but accidentally becomes an advocate for a life-saving, and financially lucrative, pharmaceutical agent. Dionne's other characters fall into more-or-less stock roles, but in every case, the reader gets an opportunity to climb into their heads for point-of-view narratives.
Perhaps unfairly, I wanted Dionne's debut novel to pick up with where Crichton's tight story-telling and scientific realism left off. Instead, we have a journeyman's solid first outing, filled with imaginative characters, settings, and action, all be they conjoined by a tousled plot and occasional leaps of credibility. Like Crichton, however, her story comes with a message - water is the world's next conflict flash-point. She resists the temptation to preach to the reader, as Crichton sometimes did, but her cautionary tale solidly propels the debate of water ownership, distribution, and access to the forefront. For a first-time author, that's quite an accomplishment, making "Freezing Point" a compelling read and a great foundation from which to launch her next contributions to the science thriller genre.