Saturday 1 April 2023

Missing airliners


Two very different novels were recently drawn together in my mind, since both feature missing airliners. One is a straightforward thriller with no SFF elements, the other is….rather different. So naturally I read them in quick succession, to compare and contrast.

Without a Trace by Mari Hannah begins with a disaster; an airliner disappears off the radar as it nears the end of its journey from the UK to New York. The recovery of fragments from the sea confirm that the plane was violently destroyed and there is little doubt that sabotage was involved. The main mystery is why? None of the usual suspects claims “credit” for the crime. 

However, the main focus of the story is on whether one particular passenger actually boarded the plane as planned. This is of desperate importance to DCI Kate Daniels, as the particular passenger is Jo, her lover. Finding out exactly what happened to Jo takes up most of the story, providing a  roller-coaster ride as all manner of diversions and red herrings drive Kate close to breakdown. 

The pace of the story is frantic, the mood tense and emotional. The investigation is also a classic police procedural, reflecting the law enforcement backgrounds of both the author and her partner. Difficult to put down. 

The Anomaly by Herve Le Tellier is a contrast in every way. It begins by presenting a series of short chapters, each one focused on the life of a particular individual. One is a mathematician studying the probability of accidents to US passenger planes, another is a terminally ill cancer patient, one is an assassin, one an airline pilot, one a pop star, one a lawyer defending a medical malpractice case, and then there is a novelist working on a strange story called “The Anomaly”. At first there appears to be nothing linking them, until the Boeing  787 some of them are travelling in flies through a violent but unpredicted storm which damages the plane and nearly causes it to crash. The only other link is that several of the passengers are subsequently visited by the FBI.

At this point, the story moves up a gear. A hastily summoned high-level and very secret meeting was briefed by US security as follows:

The 787 on the tarmac is the reason we are all here: it opened communication with Kennedy Airport at exactly 19:03 hours today, 24 June. It identified itself as flight Air France 006 from Paris to New York. The plane reported significant damage. The captain states that he is David Markle. We are here because today’s Air France 006 flight already landed more than four hours ago, at the scheduled time of 16:35 hours. But it was a different aircraft with a different captain. On the other hand, an Air France Boeing 787, with the same reference Air France 006, with exactly the same damage as this one, piloted by the same Commander Markle, with exactly the same crew and passengers and identical in every way, landed at JFK Airport but at 17:17 hours on the 10 March. Precisely one hundred and six days ago. 

This causes some consternation, as might be imagined. Particularly when the "March" versions of the people meet with the "June" versions. Sometimes they get on well, sometimes they don't (only one of the assassins survives!) and there are various subtle changes....e.g. the June novelist is not working on a story called "The Anomaly".

It emerges that China has been the target of a similar incident, and the debates concerning possible causes are intense. The US panel of scientists and other experts draws up a list of possibilities, the simplest (albeit unpopular) being that our universe, and everything and everyone it, is merely a simulation running in some unimaginably vast and powerful computer, for what purpose is unknown.

Then another version of the 787 appears in the American skies...