BOOK REVIEW: "Deception Point" by Dan Brown (2002)

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A lot of the books I review here are ones that have been foisted off on me by my friend Gin Rummy. This is basically a process that's been going on since we were in college together a quarter century ago, and lived in the same dorm. He'd get bored and borrow some of my books, I'd get bored and borrow some of his, and then we'd yak about 'em afterwards.

I'm always unsure whether I should review books he gives me that I don't like. I mean, the good ones it's a no-brainer: You've got to talk about them. But the bad? He is the literary equivalent of my 'pusher,' and I don't want to offend him or hurt his feelings by bitching and moaning about how he sent me on a 'bum trip.' So, if asked, I say, "Oh, er, yeah… uhm… it was pretty good, I guess… yeah. Say, how about that Venture Brother show, huh! Pretty cool pixilated cartoon nudity, am I right?" and that's that.

This book was a best seller in 2003. This was a huge surprise to me, since most of the books Gin gives me are comparatively obscure. The idea that I actually read something that was coincidentally making a pretty good showing on the 'best seller' lists is sort of new. Granted, it didn't make the top ten, which consists of pseudo-new age anti-intellectual crap (Brown's own "The DaVinci Code"), diet books, ("The Palm Beach Diet", "The West Palm Beach Diet," "Dr. Atkins in Palm Beach," "Young Dr. Atkins in Love," and, of course, the ever-popular, the "This Diet Will Make You Look Like All The Cute 17 Year Old Girls In Their Underwear In Our Ads" Diet.) and of course Hillary Rodham Clinton's latest repackaging of "Mein Kampf." Even so, 55 out of 100 is a pretty respectable showing. That's where "Point" topped out.

Sadly I didn't care for the book, so I've resisted reviewing it until now. But, as it's popular, people might be doing web searches to find out more about it, and as I'm a whore who'll do anything to attract more visitors to my useless little site here, I guess that means it's time for me to do it.

Back around the summer of '83 I read my first Clive Cussler novel. I believe the title was "Night Probe," but it's been a long time so I'm not sure. It was the one that starred Cussler's stock hero, "Dirk Pitt" going up against James Bond. They never actually used the name "James Bond" for obvious copyright reasons, in fact, they never called the English spy by any name at all, but he gave enough clues and in jokes to let us know that Bond was the guy Pitt was up against, in a savage battle of wits to gain control of Canada (I'm not joking), and, big surprise, Cussler's character comes out on top. Whether it's 'Raising the Titanic' or annexing the Great White North, Cussler's obvious alter ego always comes out on top. I read pretty much all of these books between '83 and my first year in college. Then, around '86, I tried re-reading some of them and discovered, to my horror, that they were just crappy potboilers ("Pittboilers"?). I gave 'em away, and spent most of my free time in the university library, listening to OMD and 'Til Tuesday on headphones, looking up old "Bloom County" strips on Microfiche, and reading Philip K. Dick books. And isn't that what college is really all about?

Anyway, when reading "Deception Point," I was having major Cussler-flashbacks. There are two protagonists in this book, the obligatory plucky career woman with a bad family history and a job on the fringes of government, and a handsome single guy who does oceanographic research. The Single Guy reminded me a lot of Dirk Pitt. (And good gravy, that's a bad name for a character! "Yurin Smegmoff" sounds better, for Pete's sake!) He works for an Underwater Research Agency that he's nominally the head of, he's got Minisubs and ships and stuff, and he's even got a goofy little comedy-relief sidekick who manages to get injured at inappropriate times and thereby endanger everyone's lives. The plot is pure Cussler, involving little-known and possibly made-up facts about the Ocean, which somehow work their way 'round to kick everybody in the ass and endanger the world, change the course of nations, and so on. The cold-eyed military professionals at the edges of the story are also a cliché that Clive likes to throw in to move the story along. So I guess what I'm saying is that if you like Cussler's books, you'll like this one.

So why didn't I? Several reasons, but primarily the first half of the book smacks of padding. There are a half-dozen characters in different locations, and rather than following any of them around until they actually do something, the book jumps more or less randomly from location to location to location, just to sort of let us see that a lot of balls are in the air at the same time. Alas, they stay in the air for most of the first half, so all this cutting back and forth serves little purpose other than to break up exposition by one set of characters with some exposition by another set of characters, and so on. Every chapter – there's a lot of chapters in this book, all very short – tries to end on a bit of a hook to keep you coming back, but the hooks are all things like, '…and then he realized something that changed his life forever!' and then you follow other stuff for a chapter or two, and then come back to find out that the realization was something like, 'you know, if we get out of this alive, I think I'm going to stop using UPS in favor of the Postal Service. It's slower, but it'll save me a ton of money!'

Ok, I'm exaggerating, but only a bit. There are 'forced' cliffhangers to most of the chapters, and though a couple – the protagonists stranded atop an iceberg, for instance – are legitimate, way too many are simply teases with no real payoff. The bottom line is that nothing of any real importance happens in the first 70 or 80 pages. There's some character development, and the story is set up, yes, but the fact is that most of the first hundred pages is simply stalling.

Want an example? Rachel, the Plucky Woman, is sent on assignment. Then we follow another character along for a bit. Then we come back to Rachel pondering what her assignment means. Then we follow another character along for a bit. Then we come back to Rachel being driven to a secret location. Then we follow another character along for a bit. Then we come back to Rachel realizing the secret location is a NASA facility. Then we follow another character along for a bit. Then we come back to Rachel realizing Air Force One is parked at the NASA facility. Then we follow another character along for a bit. Then we come back to Rachel going to Air Force One. Then we follow another character along for a bit. Then we follow Rachel meeting the president, and telling her he's got something important to tell her. Then we follow another character along for a bit. Then the president tells her that the thing he's going to tell her is so important that she can't tell anyone else. Then we follow another character along for a bit. Then Rachel and the President talk about how important the thing is that she's going to be told. Then we follow another character along for a bit. Then the President leaves without actually telling her what the important thing is. Then we follow another character along for a bit. Then she gets on a plane for a secret location. Then we follow another character along for a bit. Then the pilot tells her they're en rout to a secret location. Then we follow another character along for a bit. Then the plane lands at the secret location. Then we follow another character along for a bit. Then she gets out of the plane… and on and on and on and on. In this case, I'm not exaggerating. A good 30 or 40 pages go by before we're finally told what the amazing thing is.

Predictably, it's not all that amazing. It's actually kinda' dopey.

Which brings up another fundamental problem of the novel: the basic conflict involves presidential candidate who's basing his campaign around getting rid of NASA, because it eats up too much of the federal budget, which could better be used for other things like welfare and textbooks and whatnot. Granted, this probably plays out better now - with Obama campaigning to do just that - but in '02, they were pretty popular. And as government agencies go, it's really not that expensive. First of all, remember that the Federal Government's Operating Budget for 2003 was more than a trillion dollars. A trillion is one thousand billions. A puny 15 billion (At the time) is just a drop in the bucket, comparatively speaking. Remember, they've got thousands of employees, three major ground facilities, a dozen lesser ones, three (surviving) shuttles, and a completely useless space station to support. I'm more than willing to concede that NASA is little more than a talking-factory, but as government agencies go, they're working on a pretty scanty budget.

Also, NASA is a defense-related industry, meaning that you can shut it down, but you have to replace it with something almost identical in function, because you have to have some reliable method of putting up spy satellites and GPS tracking satellites and Secure Communications Networks and suchlike. "Get Rid Of NASA Because It Costs Too Much" makes about as much sense as saying, "Get Rid Of The Army Because It Costs Too Much." You just can't do that, as every rational person (Apart from our president) knows: There are certain organs that a country needs to have, no matter how horrendously expensive they are. NASA is aware of this, by the way, which is part of the reason they're so complacent most of the time.

In the book we're told that the candidate – who is Rachel's daddy, by the way – is very likely going to ride his anti-NASA campaign all the way into the White House. Bitching about NASA's incompetence is not really a hot-button issue. Prior to the Columbia Disaster, absolutely no one but me was bothering to do it. In fact, no one was even paying attention to 'em. Even now, after Columbia, no one is screaming for NASA's demise. If you can kill seven people and destroy a $4 billion spacecraft on live TV, as the climax of a mission to find newer and better processes for the Perfume industry (I'm not joking), and not have people screaming for the government to shut you down for showing willful disregard for human life, well, if that's the case then I'm pretty damn sure no one cares about lesser things like the agency budget. So the central impetus of the plot rings false. Or at least it would have at the time. As I said, Obama made it a plank of his platform, and people voted for it, so what do I know?

The election, we're told, will come down to the public's perception of something NASA found in the arctic. If they like it – which the book implies they will – then the incumbent president who is a Good Guy will get re-elected. If they don't like it, then Rachel's daddy, who is a Bad Guy, will get elected. Forget that elections are long, drawn out processes that seldom come down to merely one issue, much less one as arcane as whether an old meteor shows evidence of Panspermia or not: this is not a 'real' issue. This is simply a motivation to move people around in the book. It's what Hitchcock called a "MacGuffin," a mere excuse to cause people to run and jump and shout for our amusement. However, since the MacGuffin in question is so patently trivial, so clearly not the way things work in the real world that it's hard for us to care one way or another.

Much of the action in the second half of the book revolves around whether NASA's evidence is real or faked, which is kind of tedious because these scenes involve a lot of exposition involving new rocket engines that are being developed and new kinds of deep-sea rock, which really is as dull as it sounds. In the case of the new Rocket Engine, upon which a major plot point hangs, the Engine is just something invented for the story, and not from the real world. Thus, essentially, one major element of the story hinges entirely on technobabble not so far different than the stuff they continually use as a deus ex machina in Star Trek.

There's also a romance in the story between the Rachel the Plucky Woman and The Single Guy. The Single Guy turns out to differ from Dirk Pitt in that (A) he's a television host a'la Jacques Cousteau or Bob Ballard during his unfortunate season on SeaQuest, and that (B) he's not a womanizer, but rather a caring, sensitive soul yet to recover from the loss of his wife years earlier. This is pretty stock stuff, and it was so painfully obvious that the were gonna end the book in bed together that I actually began to wonder if some kind of fakeout was going on. But no, I was overthinking myself again: they end up doing it.

A lot of peripheral characters show up, but none of these have much to do with the central story. I suspect that some of these may be characters from Dan Brown's other books, but I don't know for sure. There was a feeling that we were supposed to know who some of these people were, but I didn't. The Single Guy, who as I've said, is kind of a Dirk Pitt surrogate, has a goofy sidekick just like Dirk does. We'll call him 'The Funny Guy.' In both this book and Cussler's own potboilers, 'The Funny Guy' acts as a comedic foil to the protagonist, and telegraphs all the signals of being cannon fodder, yet, mysteriously never dies. Rather, he lives to be pointlessly annoying for another day, and presumably, another sequel.

"Deception Point" is a weak book all 'round. It feels like an uninspired TV Movie, and like so many made-for-TV movies, it's simply there, with nothing to recommend it other than it's own existence.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

There's really nothing here to give offence, though I think we're supposed to believe that Rachel's daddy is pursuing a conservative agenda, but that's just a whispy-thin thing to be discontented about since everything in this book is a macguffin.

So: nothing to offend, plenty to bore.

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