Friday 12 August 2011

Nemesis by Bill Napier

Having read and enthusiastically reviewed Bill Napier's The Lure, I promptly ordered all of his earlier books, of which the first to be published was Nemesis.

The setting is the near future, and the basic plot element a familiar one: a giant asteroid is believed to be on a collision course with Earth. There is a twist here, though - there is intelligence that its course is not accidental but has been modified by a resurgent and strongly nationalist Russian leadership to strike the continental USA, "accidentally" destroying the country without incurring the immediate response of a nuclear counter-strike. The problem is that no-one in the USA knows which asteroid has been selected, where it is, or when it might strike.

Oliver Webb, a British astronomer and astrophysicist, is one of a small international team assembled by the US government to work in secrecy to identify and locate the asteroid and devise a plan for diverting it from its course. The secrecy is necessary because of a fear that if the Russians found out that their plan had been discovered, they might launch a nuclear first strike for fear that the USA would do the same. Strong voices on the US side, alarmed by the possibility that the asteroid could arrive with little or no warning, are indeed urging a first strike by the USA while it is still possible.

Against this tense background, Webb and the rest of the team are in a race against time, which involves locating a rare and ancient book by an early Italian astronomer which is believed to hold information vital to identifying the asteroid. Scenes of their struggle against increasing odds are interwoven with those of political infighting in the US government and also with some from the past, in which the Italian astronomer faces trial for his heretical beliefs about the nature of the Solar System. As in The Lure, the arguments debated in these scenes are well thought through and convincing.

Arthur C. Clarke is quoted on the cover as having described Nemesis as "The most exciting book I have ever read". I wouldn't go quite that far, but it is certainly a page-turner and I can understand Clarke's enthusiasm since Napier, a professional astronomer, share's Clarke's interest in including a lot of accurate and realistic astronomical science. He also shares Clarke's rather weak development of his characters. The book is a very good read and while the writing has some rough edges, it is a remarkable achievement for a first novel. Not surprisingly, it is not quite as good as The Lure, mainly because the plot elements (not the asteroid but the human shenanigans) are rather more far-fetched, but it can still be confidently recommended to anyone who enjoys this kind of near-future science thriller.
I had heard good things about Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World, published in 2009, so I bought a copy and settled down to enjoy the read. The story starts in a confusing future, when it is clear that something has gone drastically wrong with Earth; what is left of humanity survives in the Livable Zone. The first chapter concerns a team of people dealing with an unexpected emergency, but the reader is left dangling as to what this might be as the second chapter jumps back in time to the early childhood of two of the team members - the book's main protagonists - at a time when the world was much as it is now. Most of the rest of the book then works its way forwards to the events of the first chapter.

There’s some memorable writing but much of the book consists of digressive sub-plots rambling around all over the place. Some of them are amusing set-pieces but they turn the story into a patchwork quilt which only occasionally remembers that it's supposed to lead somewhere. I wanted to like this story and stuck with it for more than half the book, but finally admitted defeat and stopped reading when I realised that I was becoming more and more reluctant to pick it up and wasn't interested in discovering the ending.

I can see, in an objective sort of way, why the book attracted some enthusiastic reviews, but it simply failed to grip me. Which just demonstrates (if it needs demonstrating) that every book ever published has some readers who love it and some who don't.


Bill Garthright said...

Great reviews, Tony! Very useful.

Fred said...

An SF FTF group I belong to read Gone-Away World several months ago and gave it conditional positive reviews. Major problem: the subplots tended to take over and many didn't seem relevant until the very end, which was a real surprise to all of us, although some of us started wondering just before the end.

This month's selection is his _Angermaker_.

Anthony G Williams said...

Please let me know what you think of Angermaker.

Fred said...

Another senior moment.

The title of Harkaway's novel that we are reading this month is _Angelmaker_.

Anthony G Williams said...

A slight difference in emphasis ;-)

Fred said...

Yes, just a "slight" difference.

Fred said...

I finished Harkaway's _Angelmaker_.
Three of the members of the group liked it, one hadn't finished it yet, and I was the one who didn't care for it that much.

It certainly has a considerably more straightforward narrative structure than _Gone-Away World_. On the other hand, the science aspect was ludicrous and completely unbelievable to me.

The major problem was that this was supposed to be an SF Thriller, with the good guys trying to stop the bad guys from destroying the universe with an infernal device. Yet, the narrative was continually being interrupted by long, short story length (slight exaggeration here) biographies of the major characters, ostensibly to show how and why they got here.

So, we are racing along engaging in battles and shootouts with the enemy and then--time for a 10 to 20 page biography of one of the characters.

For all its confusing narrative structure, I preferred _Gone-Away World_, even though it had similar problems with plotus interruptus. However, these weren't the problems that they were in _Angelmaker_.

Anthony G Williams said...

Thanks for that, Fred; I think I'll give it a miss. Every time I walk into my room I see a large pile of books waiting to be read, which makes me unwilling to spend time on any story which isn't really good.

Fred said...


Well, three of the other four in the discussion group would disagree with me and recommend that you read it.

It would have been much better at 350 pages than at the 440 it had.