Monday, December 20, 2010

Review - PushBack by Alfred Wellnitz

Short review: A near future techno-thriller that seems to be more like an outline for a trilogy of books than a book in itself.

Economy collapse
Leads to neo-Nazi rule
And freedom fighters

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Member Giveaway program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: PushBack is a near future thriller that presents a modestly interesting premise, but is ultimately an entirely frustrating book that accomplishes the rare feat of providing the reader both too much and not enough information. Though the events of the book are set in the 2030s, I wouldn't classify the book as science fiction, as there isn't really much meaningful difference between the posited future and the present, which is one of the first things that undermines the believability of the book. Given the substantial technological and cultural changes that have taken place between 1986 and now, it simply seems implausible that so little would change between 2010 and 2034 which serves to start the book off on the wrong foot.

The premise and plot of the book is fairly straightforward. The dollar depreciates drastically in value leading to the breakup and Balkanization of the United States. One of the successor states is taken over by white supremacist government led by a thinly disguised analogue of Adolf Hitler and backed by Russian oil money, and then proceeds to discriminate against and then expel or inter all the black residents under their authority. In response, black dissidents organize an insurrection that culminates in a reverse of The Sum of All Fears with the heroes planting a nuclear device and trying to set it off before the bad guys get wind of their plans and stop them.

But the book falls into an unfortunate middle ground between providing too much detail concerning the events leading from the present day status quo to the imagined situation of the future and not enough. In general, it seems as though a writer needs to choose between giving this sort of background cursory attention, as Heinlein did with background in stories like -If This Goes On and Friday, or devoting the bulk of the book to it. But Wellnitz spends almost the whole first 100 pages setting up the back story - in that span the dollar undergoes hyperinflation, the United States disintegrates, the CAN Party takes over the Federated States (basically comprised of the Confederacy minus Florida and Texas), and blacks are evicted from the region. There is a habit among some writers that having done a lot of research for their book, they want to show the reader all of their work, even the work that is mostly extraneous to the story. It is clear that Wellnitz developed a detailed timeline for the events in the series, but all too often he feels compelled to include this sort of detail in the book, which bogs the narrative down. For example:

"Three days after the planning meeting, Richard Robert Robinson messaged the group that he had negotiated the use of a storage building at the Macon cotton farm from 6:00 p.m. on August 5 to 6:00 a.m. on August 6. There would be a ton of ammonium nitrate in the building on August 5. Cost for the use of the building and the fertilizer: a non-negotiable ten thousand euros.

John informed the team that they had the use of the Federated Laundry Company truck starting at noon on August 5.

On July 16, John Renner drove down to Waycross, Georgia, to pick up a package that had been smuggled into the country through the Okefenokee Swamp. The package contained two detonators and a timer to be used in the bomb.

On the evening of August 5, Kevin Johnson, Richard Robert Robinson, and John Renner . . . .

And so on. The book is littered with dates, details and lots of motion by the characters. But most of the detail is simply irrelevant. The reader doesn't need to know every instance in which the Black Resistance was in a specific place on specific dates from one specific time to another specific time. This sort of detail is more or less busywork the reader has to slog through that does little to advance the plot or develop the characters. While keeping the timeline straight might be important for the author to keep the story consistent, I found the inclusion of a constant stream of dates and logistical details to be distracting and tedious. It doesn't really add much to the story to let the reader know that at a meeting one participant had wine, two others had beer, and the last had a diet coke.

And the further problem is that adding lots of detail often simply raised more questions that were not answered. The political crisis of the story is precipitated by the massive devaluation of the dollar. But the reason for this hyperinflation is not addressed. The United States disintegrates in a handful of paragraphs and all of the successor states solve the currency crisis by adopting a new currency and immediately pegging it to the euro. But this just causes the reader to wonder if this solution was really that simple, why didn't the United States government do that to begin with? Further, in a world in which the dollar has become valueless, the idea that the euro would be a model of stability seems rather far-fetched (especially in light of the current struggles the EU is having keeping the euro afloat). Through the story it is reinforced that while the components of the former United States are suffering from a massive depression, the rest of the world is doing much better - the CAN Party is financed by a Russia apparently awash in cash, while in Central America a character is told by a local that the tourist business is kept going by vacationing Europeans, and so on. Given the massive financial and commercial interconnections between the United States and the rest of the world, including Europe, this seems implausible in the extreme. The Federated States are supposedly able to pull out of the economic malaise the rest of the successor states are mired in on the strength of becoming a transit point for imported Russian oil. But this also seems implausible. Nations in this position, such as, for example, Ukraine, do have money flowing through them, but the industry employs so few people that in general they still have unemployment problems, and non-oil related industries are not really buoyed by the presence of oil pipelines and ports. Wellnitz simply doesn't provide enough information to back up his assertions concerning his imagined reality. There is a dangerous middle ground that an author can fall into, in which he gives enough detail to raise questions, but not enough for the reader to be satisfied with the answers to those questions, and PushBack sits right in the center of that territory.

Sapping a little more energy from the book is the fact that the CAN Party, which takes control of the Federated States via a Russian backed coup d'etat, is such a close analogue of the Nazi Party. Carl Haas, the head of the CAN Party stands in for Hitler, and like Hitler he is a vegetarian teetotaler who is a weak public speaker who practices his routines in front of a full length mirror. The plan to remove or imprison all black inhabitants from the Federated States is labelled the "Ultimate Solution", paralleling the Nazi created "Final Solution" to do much the same thing to Jews in Germany. Towards the end of the book, Wellnitz throws aside any semblance of disguising the parallel and begins calling the guards that surround Carl Haas "SS guards". But making the CAN Party of the imagined 2030s such a thinly disguised version of the German Nazi Party of the actual 1930s causes the reader to wonder exactly why one would read this book as opposed to just picking up a text covering the history of the Third Reich.

Despite throwing tons of detail and an imitation Nazi Party headed by an imitation Adolf Hitler, the book seems strangely empty. Most of the characters are so bland that there is no one for the reader to really root of or against in any but the most general manner. John Renner, the putative hero of the book, opposes the CAN Party because he is black and they killed his girlfriend. But the girlfriend is so hastily introduced and then bumped off that one never really gets to know her character, and thus the reader doesn't share Renner's outrage at her death. On the other side, while Carl Haas shows up several times, he is too distant from the machinations of intrigue to be a useful villain, and all of the intelligence operatives used by the Federated States come and go too quickly for the reader to build up any sort of animus against them. All too often the reader is told about events without having a character to follow as they live through them - for example while we are told that black residents in the Federated States who remain in its borders are interred in concentration camps, this is presented in an abstract way. Giving the reader a character to follow into the camps and experience first hand the nastiness of the CAN Party would have made the evil more real to the reader. As the old saying goes, a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. Over and over again Wellnitz gives the reader statistics rather than tragedies. In general, the characters mostly enter and leave the story too quickly to be developed as much more than caricatures, and the few who do stick around are just not that interesting.

I'll also mention two story elements that really stuck out as poorly done. The first relates to the resistance to the CAN Party rule of the Federated States, which is dubbed the "Freedom Legion". Several times, Freedom Legion members pull a business card with their name and a Freedom Legion logo out of their pocket and show it to a potential recruit in order to convince them to join. This just seems so stupid that it is hard to see how the Freedom Legion could survive. When you are a member of a clandestine organization seeking to overthrow an authoritarian government, the last thing you would want to do is carry a business card with your name on it identifying you as a member of the resistance. Every time a Freedom Legion member whipped out their monogrammed card identifying themselves as what the CAN Party would label an anti-government terrorist, I imagined that they must lose most of their members to random roadblocks when the Federated States police rifle through their purses and wallets to find their neatly printed tickets to the gas chamber.

The second problem story element is the final resolution. Given that the illustration on cover of the book, it doesn't seem like much of a spoiler to let the cat out of the bag and reveal that the Freedom Legion smuggles a tactical nuclear device into Atlanta and detonates it. While the attack does serve to decapitate the CAN Party, it kills a couple hundred thousand people in the process. Immediately afterwards, the Freedom Legion takes credit for the blast and moves in to take over. But one would think that no matter how despised the CAN Party might be, killing a couple hundred thousand people would have huge negative political repercussions. It is likely that everyone in the Federated States would have had family members or close friends killed in the attack, which would probably spark a huge negative reaction to the Freedom Legion. Yet the book ends on a Pollyannaish note, with everyone pretty much feeling full of happiness and rainbows and the Freedom Legion riding in on a white horse to save everyone. But at this juncture, when what would likely be the beginning of the real political and logistical heavy lifting, the story ends.

While the premise of the story - a band of freedom fighters smuggles a nuclear bomb into an autocratic successor state to the defunct United States- is interesting, the execution of the book is simply lacking. The book is loaded with lots of little details, but leaves too many larger questions simply unanswered, or provides answers that simply don't make any sense when subjected to any scrutiny. Because it is loaded with lists of dates detailing exactly when events happen, complete with piles of logistical data, the book feels more like an outline for a series of books than a completed work in itself. If Wellnitz had fleshed out the book by filling in these gaps while giving the reader better focus characters, this could have been a compelling series of thrillers. As it is, the book is simply a collection of frustratingly unrealized promises.

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