The obvious strength of the techno-thriller--from Tom Clancy's firm grip on submarine warfare to Dale Brown's absolute command of SDI countermeasures--is the authenticity of its techno to the nth microchip. Thriller usually comes easy.
In "Night Launch," a story of glasnost gone awry in space, there is no doubting the depth, easy proportions and presentation of the technical. It comes straight from the astronaut's mouth. In 1985, co-author and ex-Navy fighter pilot Garn (R-Utah) flew as a payload specialist on a seven-day voyage of the space shuttle Discovery.
As a thriller, however, the book ranks second in excitement to a wet weekend in Houston. Despite Stephen Paul Cohen's two previous novels--presuming his expertise is behind the plot, dialogue and chronology of this one--the story unrolls flat and pat and in an enormous hurry. Some chapters are fewer than 1,000-word fillers. Characters enter and exit with no time to be anything but our casual acquaintances. Some, in fact, seem to have no purpose beyond warm names fulfilling the six-person manifest of space shuttles.
Not that the writing, per se, is bad. It shines at times, particularly when catching the poetry of space flight and the stamp that this extraordinary form of travel leaves on its travelers. But then it trips over its own moon boots, spending little time on the true grit of space launches; settling for wispy portrayals of even central figures; and rarely creating a true face, a believable disposition, the set of a walk or the cadence of individual speech.
Most oddly, the villain of the piece seems to be a rather likable chap of somewhat innocuous political purpose--even after he's hijacked the shuttle and put a bullet in one astronaut and head shot the chip-on-the-shoulder, overachiever Steve McQueen of the crew. Such acts, when related to the presented history of the individual, are absolutely out of context. The untangled story line is, unfortunately, a shilling shocker. It lacks the unexpected. The love interest, token fusings, dutiful wives, fun-loving American astronauts and dour Soviet counterparts are in their predictable places. So is the outcome and corn syrup epilogue.
Call it Cold War and Remembrance. It is 1990. The Challenger tragedy has been handled, NASA is fully operational again and a Peace Flight Program, a Soviet-American shuttle series, is ready for launch.
There are two American astronauts, one British flier, two Soviets and Alex Vonberger, an East German. He's the joker on the flight deck, a space mole with membership in Das Deutschland Syndikat, a neo-Nazi organization working to unify East with West Germany. It is not clear what Das Syndikat has been doing, if anything, in the 45 years since Hitler shuffled off his mortal bunker.
Anyway, 10 members of Das Syndikat's executive have been scooped up by police in Austria. Vonberger's assignment is to hijack the shuttle Discovery and hold its crew hostage until the Syndikat Ten are released.
How does it end? C'mon, do you think Washington rolls over, the bad guys are released and Vonberger escapes to Berlin and a top job in the founding of the Fourth Reich?
But back to the techno. It saves the book from pulp and not for any CapCom explanations of deorbit burns or main engine cutoffs. No. Someone--Garn or maybe Cohen responding to Garn's recall of his experience--has caught the essence of space flight and its effect on human perspectives as reported by every stratospheric commuter since John Glenn.
So one astronaut talks of birds around the launch site who have accepted man's winged flight because this is their form of flight. But hot, spewing, thundering rockets are birds of a different feather and the gulls, herons and pelicans "looked upon man's flight into space the same way that fish must have looked at the first amphibians to leave the water for land.
"In the cries of the birds, Madlinger could hear a desperate clinging to the status quo and an unyielding fear of the unknown."
Madlinger also remembers the paralyzing, disconnecting calm of an earlier space walk. Then he learned that space knew nothing of time and events on Earth. Our globe, from many miles high, shows no signs of sectarian war or deaths from hunger "and in the calmness he understood that space was not ignorant, but, instead, was timelessly forgiving.
"From space, the Earth would always be beautiful." These moments get "Night Launch" off the pad.
But the book remains suborbital.