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Dale Brown is a prolific writer, having written 17 novels and co-authored a further seven, the Dreamland series, with Jim DeFelice. At least one of Brown's novels has spawned a video game spin-off. Brown's newest novel, ACT OF WAR, is the first in a planned series featuring action hero Brigadier General Jason Richter.
After reading the first two chapters, I found myself thinking about another tale of fear and Machiavellian machinations set on the home front in a time of war -- Jane Austen's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.
The moral of Austen's story is that first impressions are often wrong. Elizabeth learns to like Mr Darcy, after she gets over the bad introduction. Having found the beginning of ACT OF WAR rather unpleasant, I followed Austen's advice and continued, hoping that, like Mr Darcy, the tale would improve with familiarity. It never did.
In ACT OF WAR, it's the future, Bush is still President, and the War on Terror rumbles on. A group of environmentalist, anti-globalisation, anti-capitalism terrorists based in Brazil send a suicide bomber to nuke the town of Kingman City, Texas.
Kingman City is the headquarters of TransGlobal Energy Corporation, whose founder and CEO is the eponymous ubermensch Harold Kingman. The town and surrounding area are duly nuked, and, in Washington, the President demands a Congressional act authorising war against the unknown enemy.
So Brigadier General Richter goes on the case, with the help of bitchy yet attractive top-secret task-force colleague and 'clean-up gal' Dr Ariadna Vega.
Richter is a superhero because he gets to run around the country in a hollow 'robot' which is radiation-proof, virtually indestructible, launches grenades, and, according to the prefatory pages, is based on something actually being developed by the US military. The other characters call him RoboCop without any hint of self-mockery.
Richter's enemy is the evil genius ecoterrorist leader Dr Ruiz. Born in Brazil, he became a "long-haired radical student" at UCal-Davis. His doctorate, in a subfield of environmental science, is from Stanford.
ACT OF WAR is a piece of Republican extremist propaganda, and not even subtle, clever, or eloquent propaganda. Not only do the crazies nuke civilians in defence of the environment (ironic, innit?), but the omniscient third-person narrator also praises Condoleeza Rice for her "military affairs expertise." This raises a gripping mystery: with this expertise, why hasn't she found Osama yet, or brought peace to Iraq, or equality to Afghanistan?
Characters joke about Bill & Hillary Clinton having a common taste for women as well as power, and the Clintons are compared to Napoleon and Hitler. Show me the remains of the concentration camps where ten million people died as a direct result of Bill and Hillary Clinton's active and personal will, and I'll accept this parallel. Okay, you could say, this is a fictional character's opinion, not necessarily Brown's, but it isn't challenged, and the man who says it dies as a heroic martyr, trying to save the lives of thousands or millions of civilians.
In principle, I don't mind propaganda writing, but Brown's storytelling is weakened by redundancy and nonsense. The war on terror is at one point called a battle against "death and tyranny." This sounds as if one objective is to make humans immortal. Elsewhere: "And then as a slug entered his brain, and he died, the world disappeared in a blinding flash of white-hot light..."
A top military man seems not to have read the back pages of the world news section of many papers over the past 30 years. "Since I've never heard of a Western WMD up for sale," this officer reasons, "I can only assume it was Russian." Didn't the US and UK sell some shoulder-fired missiles to the Afghan mujahideen, before they became the enemy?
More disturbingly, Brown's President asks for Congress to make a formal "declaration of war against terrorism" and to back it up by repealing the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which "was designed to keep federal military troops from violating the people's constitutional rights by acting in a warlike manner to civilians on American soil." This Act is dangerous, the President claims, because it has rendered "America incapable of defending itself against an attack on its own soil."
That crackle of burning vellum you're hearing right now might be the US Constitution.
The back cover blurb claims that ACT OF WAR's 'authenticity' is assured because its author is a former pilot. My grandfather Max Nesvet was a US Army Air Corps serviceman. He was one of the ordinary heroes of the Second World War, but I'd never assume that he knew more about the battle plan than a particularly intrepid military historian or journalist. The few scraps of information passed down to me indicate that Max (he died too young to be called Granddad) followed his orders and knew nothing special, not even the cause of his mysterious postwar illness and premature death.
The front cover picture is a grainy image of a missile hurtling toward the White House from very close range. The back cover says that the image of the rocket is "Courtesy of US Army." Below that picture, the subtitle screams "THE FIGHT FOR FREEDOM IS A BATTLE WITHOUT LIMITS." What a surprising hook -- doesn't everybody know that the War on Terror is limited by the mind-forg'd manacles of reason and Constitutional law?
As Austen preaches, you should never judge a person by first impressions, or a book by its cover. However, the cover of ACT OF WAR serves as a top-notch advance warning system.
Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, June 2006
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