Saturday, March 13, 2010

Critical Mass, by Whitley Strieber

Book 7 of My Old Man's Challenge.

When I was young, there was a t.v. movie called "The Day After" which showed what it would be like to have an atom bomb go off in America. Well, it was more than one bomb actually, but it was hypnotically horrifying to see homes and people vaporized in a second, the radiation sickness that followed and the chaos that resulted from it. I think in the movie the bombs going off were the result of an accidental launch.

In Critical Mass, a nuclear weapon is detonated over Las Vegas, but it is no accident. A Muslim terrorist group sets it off with a warning of more to come if Western countries don't bow to Sharia law, including burkas for women, no more Christianity or any other religion and five prayers a day facing Mecca. Jim Deutsch, a CIA contractor, tries to chase down the next bomb while running from someone within the U.S. government who has the power to issue arrest warrants and send FBI teams to pursue him.

Jim's ex-wife, Nabila, is an Arab American working for the CIA trolling internet sites for terrorist threats. She is under scrutiny as a possible internal threat based on her parentage, but despite the veiled discrimination (she doesn't wear a veil herself), she strives to do her best to find Islamic terrorists to protect her country. As she becomes aware of the situation her ex is in, she discovers some connections that lead to her own relatives, forcing her to face the darker side of her faith.

Meanwhile the U.S. economy is effectively shut down as ships and planes are stopped at the borders and ports. Major cities the world over scramble to discover if they are next on the terrorists' list. Governments struggle with the problem of possible decapitation should their assemblies and parliaments get caught up in the conflagration.

I was bothered by a couple of things in the first part of the book. While introducing Jim's character, the author got a little repetitive describing the trouble Jim was in. I think there were a few redundant paragraphs that almost made me put the book down because I was thinking, "Okay, we established that already, move on." It happened again when describing the human impact of the bomb over Las Vegas. He describes the final moments of a slew of people and how poignant and tragic it was that their lives were snuffed out in a moment. And just when you think the author can get back to the plot, there's more horror to describe. While I understand that he was trying to make the idea of a nuclear holocaust personal, I started to feel as if he was trying to pad the book, get more pages in there to meet an arbitrary quota.

It was hard to put the book down, if nothing else for the "can't go by an accident without gawking" effect. Parents may want to carefully consider if teens should read this one. The effects of a nuclear blast on the human body are laid out in almost gruesome detail. Other topics of discussion might include emergency preparation, loyalty, and the responsibility of citizens in getting involved in government. If you are prone to nightmares, you might want to pass this one up.

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