CLUBHOUSE: Review: Fragment, an eco-adventure novel by Craig Russell

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OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.

Fragment – by Craig Russell

Published by Thistledown Press, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, in 2016.

Premise: 

I can do no better than quote the blurb on the back of the book which is, after all, designed to convince you to buy it.

“When avalanching glaciers thrust a massive Antarctic ice sheet into the open ocean, the captain of an atomic submarine must risk his vessel to rescue the survivors of a smashed polar research station; in Washington the president’s top advisor scrambles to spin the disaster to suit his master’s political aims; meanwhile two intrepid newsmen sail south into the storm-lashed Drake Passage to discover the truth. And beneath the human chaos one brave blue whale fights for the survival of his species.”

The above be officially sanctioned spoilers.

Review:  

The Threat:

The Ross ice shelf in its entirety, an ice plateau 200 miles long, 100 miles wide, and 2,000 feet thick, is now drifting in the Eastern Current of the South Atlantic, the one current which sweeps completely around the world without interference from any land mass. Too dense to melt swiftly or break up easily, the Ross Shelf’s 500 billion tons of ice overrides everything in its path and is so massive it even effects the weather. I like the fact that Craig describes it as “the world’s largest manmade object” as a subtle hint of the effects of global warming.

The Other Threat:

The President of the United States is a climate change denier. Any and all evidence of global warming must be supressed, all attempts to cope with the consequences cancelled, and the public misled into believing all is well and there is nothing to worry about. What a silly concept. Of course all U.S. Presidents listen carefully to the advice and advocacy of the scientific institutions within the government (NASA, for instance), not to mention to the combined knowledge of the military, diplomatic, and Capital Hill Corps. No president would ever throw out the advice of countless experts and wing it on his own. No President would ever say of global warming “I don’t believe it” and make that the sum total of his environmental policy. Could never happen. Why such cartoon villains are found only in James Bond films. What an unrealistic vision! Not credible at all!

Except, of course, Donald Trump was elected in November of 2016. Fragment was published the month before. Coincidence? Yes. Truth is the novel has nothing to do with Trump. Craig began writing it in 2006. The character of the President he based in part on then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a Conservative who famously denied climate change and actively dismantled some government programs studying the problem. In one sense Trump’s election was pure serendipity for the author. What might have been dismissed by critics as stupidly unrealistic has proven horribly prescient. William Gibson said “The best science fiction is really about today.” Craig Russell hit that mark dead on. He chose Harper as an example of a breed of politician who represent a serious threat to our ability to cope with global warming, and it turns out Trump is the ultimate example of the type. In terms of relevancy to the world at large, the publication date couldn’t have been better timed.

The Real Threat:

The President’s political advisor is Norman Buchart, an amoral spin doctor whose sole purpose is to make the President look good and misdirect all negative publicity back on the President’s critics. Who cares if lives are threatened or the interests of the country are at risk? All that matters is maintaining the President’s popularity and taking advantage of each fresh disaster to make the opposition look like traitors. Both the President and Norman are perfectly willing to stretch or even break constitutional law and custom to get what they want. Sound familiar?

Craig has the knack of defining characters brilliantly with very few words in the course of an anecdote or two. In Norman’s case, it has to do with a legend associated with his childhood, that he read Machiavelli’s The Prince (a Renaissance-era manual on how to stay in power by screwing everybody else) at a very young age and burst out laughing, declaring it the funniest book he had ever read. Norman is such a professional cynic he would scare the hell out of Diogenes. Can’t turn your back on him for a second. Of course the President considers him his best buddy. He can’t afford not to. But Norman is not cruel, just calculating and ruthless beyond normal levels of sanity. The real sort of evil genius the world offers, as opposed to most fictional villains. A very credible character indeed.

The Whale:

The one science fiction element in Fragment is the premise that whales are as intelligent as human beings. This puts the novel into the category of “first contact with aliens turns out to be a species with whom we share our planet.” In the book the whales and the humans frantically attempt to interpret each other’s motivations and intent. No easy task given the historical baggage of whale harvesting and the fact (or alleged fact for the sake of the plot) that the modes of thought and the way they perceive the world around them are completely different.

Central to the credibility of the whales as characters as important as any of the human characters is the kind of background culture Craig creates for them, not to mention personal anecdotes giving insight into their individual personalities. In the case of Ring, the most important blue whale relevant to the plot, it is the vivid memory of witnessing his mother eaten alive by killer whales that stirs our sympathy. I still remember the National Geographic photos showing a pod of killer whales taking turns skimming strips of blubber from an unfortunate blue that eventually bled to death as it was being eaten. Poor thing couldn’t dive to escape because the killers were also taking turns crisscrossing beneath it and attacking from below. I imagine Craig read the same article (or perhaps it was part of a Nat Geo TV special—been so long I can’t remember) and used it as inspiration for the anecdote. Anyway, sure made me feel sorry for Ring. Helped me empathise with his character.

Revealing the mindset of a genuine alien is one of the hardest tasks to pull off in science fiction. For too long aliens were just half-breed sidekicks (copied from Western pulps) who happened to look like lobsters, or whatever. Then along came Stanley G. Weinbaum in 1934 with his marvellously incomprehensible character Tweel in the story “A Martian Odyssey.” What Craig does is something similar as the whales and the humans struggle to understand each other. We find out what kind of mental images and symbols make sense to whales, learn something of their oral traditions, and discover the meaning of their songs, their complexity and subtlety, as if we are in the process of comprehending an advanced civilization previously unknown to us. All this presented in a matter-of-fact way that is easy to take for granted. Consequently, bit by bit, chapter by chapter, we are led on a path of reader’s acceptance enabling us to take in each new revelation without saying “hey, wait a minute, that’s impossible!”

Of course, detailed interspecies interaction beyond swimming together and making noises at each other probably falls into the realm of anthropomorphising, but this is a very human tendency which Craig takes full advantage of. If you buy the basic premise of the whales being highly intelligent Craig guides you by the hand to believe in the increasing sophistication of the interactions and their ultimate implications without a qualm of doubt. Quite a trick. Quite a skill.

But, if at some point you put the book down and say “Nah, I don’t buy it,” then you shouldn’t be reading science fiction eco-adventure catastrophe novels in the first place. You’d be better off reading a Tom Clancy novel. That’s more “real,” supposedly. But for them as likes their imagination stretched, the interaction between whales and humans is one of the highlights and delights of this book.

Everybody Else:

There are at least 15 principle characters to keep track of. They include the Marketing Director of a cruise ship line, the owner of a steel-hulled sloop, a Bible-reading, play-it-by-the-book (in more ways than one) nuclear submarine commander, assorted scientists and TV news reporters, plus others. Sounds like too many? Too difficult to keep separate in your mind? Too confusing?

Not a bit of it. As mentioned, Craig has a definite talent for creating vivid characters with a minimum of telling details. None of the characters are dull and boring. None of them are “fill” simply to serve a single function. All are memorable. All have their open and hidden agendas plus doubts and fears. Most are locked in competition with others and half the time they have no idea what they’re going to do next but plan to bluff it out and come out on top. They are very real and quite credible characters. The reader winds up being interested in the fate of all of them.

Besides, Craig employs a secret weapon. Every scene is extremely short and absolutely no longer than it needs to be. Thus, even a brief bout of reading cycles you through every character and keeps them in the forefront of your mind’s eye. I’d say it’s impossible to forget any of them. Further, the short scenes make for a fast-paced read. Difficult to put down. Quite astonishing when you consider Fragment is basically about a biggish iceberg and a biggish whale sharing an ocean with a bunch of humans who have very little idea how to cope with either. Most people might think the premise sounds dull and preachy and would probably want to give it a pass. Too bad if they do, because they’d be missing out on a fun read. Fragment is as exciting to read as any action-adventure novel, more than most I’d say.

Nifty Stuff:

Craig constantly makes use of original little touches that add to the ambience of the book. For instance, the three scientists marooned in the snow after the destruction of their base with virtually no supplies other than what they had on them spot a surveillance drone launched from the still-distant nuclear submarine. How to attract the attention of the operator? One quick-thinking scientist pulls a CD out of his laptop (he fled with it in order to preserve his research) and, using the shiny side, flashes reflected sunlight toward the drone hoping his signal will be noticed. It is. That’s the kind of nifty, non-cliché detail I like to see. So much better than the expected “I’ll just light this flare” approach.

Another source of intriguing detail is the research Craig has put into the novel. The info is provided within the fabric of the plot for the most part, with few info dumps but even those are fascinating and do not disrupt the pacing at all. I had no idea wave height is determined by velocity, duration, and fetch, and such are conditions in the Drake Passage that the combination of all three produces an average of one rogue wave per hour! I am never, ever going sailing in the Drake Passage. Not in a sloop. Not even in a cruise ship. This be one piece of useful knowledge, I tell you.

Actually, the significance of the research manifest in the writing is that the reader’s complacency is constantly being shattered. I’ve read many books about naval history over my lifetime yet there are many important and relevant details about the reality of the ocean environment mentioned in Fragment which I never came across before. Too much research can kill a book if the reader gains the impression he is merely reading the author’s notes rather than a work of fiction. But here the occasional tidbits of new and amazing information add additional wow factor to the excitement of the read. Craig has a very nice sense of judgement of what to include and, I suspect, what to leave out. Beginning writers would do well to imitate his technique.

The Ending:

The pace quickens toward the end, building to a climax of biblical proportions which also happens to resolve the individual conundrums of most of the characters one way or another. If you’ve gotten this far accepting Craig’s treatment of the premise every step of the way then the resolution in both its apocalyptic and subtle aspects will be perfectly acceptable and satisfying. At least as a work of fiction. You’ll probably say “Oh, sure. Why not?” Ties up everything neatly in terms of character loose ends, though rather messily in terms of the world’s fate.

But what is the significance for the real world? Here you’d have to cast aside the science fiction/fantasy element of human-intelligent whales (which adds considerably to the entertainment value of the novel) and just look at the ecological implications of a massive break-up of the Antarctic Ice Shield beyond anything which has happened to date. Makes for a grim warning. Definitely something to think about.

On the other hand, getting down to the nitty gritty of the real world, should Fragment be taken seriously by anybody? Isn’t just an eco-adventure work of fiction? Merely a light-hearted if sensationally alarmist bit of fluff designed to amuse? Something to read while lying on a blanket at the beach?

I consider it significant and noteworthy that less than two weeks ago the Brazilian Association for the Study of Literature and Environment invited Craig Russell to give a talk on Fragment as a “Climate Crisis” novel at their upcoming convention in Curitiba, Brazil. Rather a feather in his cap I should think. Also, I’m blown away that such an organization exists. There’s hope for our species yet, methinks.

CONCLUSION:

Darn good book. Fast paced, even exhilarating, hard to put down, each page makes you want to read more. Ten years in the writing and well worth it. Exactly the sort of fiction I love. An apocalyptic eco-catastrophe premise, yes, but one that’s loads of fun to read. I doubt you’ll be disappointed. I sincerely believe you’ll enjoy it. I certainly did.

Check it out at:    < Fragment by Craig Russell >

 

 

 

 

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