Friday 14 December 2018

The Fifth Force, by Libby McGugan

This is the (long delayed) sequel to the author's first novel, The Eidolon, which impressed me so much when I reviewed it over four years ago. This is my review from then:

The plot is set in the present day and concerns Robert Strong, a young theoretical physicist who is contacted by the Observation Research Board, a shadowy but powerful organisation. ORB presents convincing research evidence that the experiments with the CERN Large Hadron Collider may result in the creation of "strangelets", sub-atomic particles which, by interacting with ordinary matter, could destroy our present reality. However, CERN had dismissed the risk, so ORB wants Strong to sabotage their research before it is too late.

So far the plot seems like a techno-thriller with a rather more fundamental plot than most, and (as far as I am competent to judge) the author has done her research into theoretical physics while displaying her knowledge with a light touch that doesn't distract from the story. What struck me first about the novel is how beautifully and intelligently written it is, how full of perceptive observations. It's difficult to write a lot more without spoilers, so all I will say is that the plot develops in very unexpected and increasingly strange directions that compel Strong to question his understanding of the nature of reality.

The Eidolon is that rare thing, a novel with a unique and intriguing plot that has no respect for traditional genre boundaries. The only other book I have read in recent years of which I could say the same is China Miéville's The City and the City. While The Eidolon is complete in itself, the world the author has created clearly has far more scope for exploration, so I was delighted to read in the interview that she is working on the sequel. That one will go straight to the top of my reading pile.

Given the length of time that has passed, I decided to re-read The Eidolon before starting The Fifth Force (prompted also by its choice as as a book of the month for the Classic Science Fiction discussion group ( ) . I read it in two sessions and was just as gripped by the story the second time around, especially since I had forgotten most of the plot! The quality of the writing shines throughout; to give an example chosen at random:

A lazy winter sun struggles to dispel the bleak mist that lingers over the land like  banished cloud. The glen has an earthy scent; the scent of wood and plants and rain and life: not the sterile life of the city, but the life that grows and struggles and prevails unnoticed all around. The engine room of the planet. As I walk up along the well-trodden path I listen to the sound of my boots on the rocks and soil. It makes me feel a part of the land, that noise. But I'm uneasy. I feel like a guitar that's out of tune, too subtly to say which string is off, but enough to know that the whole thing doesn't sound right.

The Fifth Force follows on directly from The Eidolon, and there are some discreet prompts to refresh the memory (nothing so crude as an infodump). WARNING – it is really impossible to write about The Fifth Force without including some fairly massive spoilers for The Eidolon – so if you haven't yet read the first novel but intend to, it's better to stop reading NOW!


One thing I like about the first book is the gradual shift from a straightforward espionage story through science fiction and on to fantasy. Inevitably, that intriguing journey is missing from the sequel, which while still being set in the present-day world is definitely fantasy – with elements of horror, but not the traditional vampire zombie gore.

Robert Strong is struggling to get used to his new identity as one of the Eidolon – one of the few beings who do not "pass on" at death but remain rooted in the real world, albeit with various super-human abilities (which prove to be decidedly difficult to master). After thwarting the plans of that embodiment of evil, Viktor Amos, Robert is on the run, trying to protect himself and his loved ones from the long reach of Amos's ORB. There are several elements to the story involving different individuals, and concentration is needed to keep track of them all. Apart from Robert and his friends from the first book (who have no idea what Robert has become), there are staff of the ORB and CERN, a few of the Eidolon who are dedicated to helping him, academics who are investigating a strange upsurge in telepathy among the general population, a mother whose young son appears to remember a past life, an investigative journalist who is commissioned to track Robert down, and some Tibetan monks. And running through this is the fate of an ancient Mandala and stone which Amos is very keen to obtain.

So there's a lot going on and a lesser author would have me scratching my head trying to recall who was who and doing what to whom and why, but McGugan does a competent job of keeping even a forgetful reader like myself up to speed. The Fifth Force is a wild ride and ends on something of a cliff-hanger. I notice on the cover of the book that this is Book 2 of the Quantum Ghosts trilogy, so I only hope that we don't have to wait another four years for the final part!

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