28 May, 2007

Rad Decision, by James Aach. Book review

Edition reviewed, Impressive Imprint, 2006, ISBN 978-0-6151-3657-8.

Rad Decision is set in a fictitious nuclear power station in Indiana, USA, in 1986. There’s a walk-on part for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and a few scenes set at the Chernobyl reactor accident. All the main characters and events are fictional.

Fairview Station is a nuclear power station supplying 580 million watts of electricity to the US national grid. Unknown to its manager, Steve Borden, one of his team of trusted employees is a Soviet spy planted in the US almost ten years before and awaiting the signal for sabotage. In the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident, rogue elements in the Soviet espionage system order this agent, Vitaly Kruchinkin, to activate his plan to wreck Fairview. A mole has alerted the FBI to potential danger, but can agent Liz Rezhnitsky identify Kruchinkin in time? And if she fails, can Steve and his team of engineers prevent an accident turning into a disaster?

As I said in my review of Pompeii, I’m always pleased to see a thriller centred on an engineer rather than a spy or a soldier. In Rad Decision the technology and control systems of the power plant are central to the plot, not just unexplained shiny objects in the background to a gunfight. The author, James Aach, is an engineer with twenty years’ experience in the US nuclear power industry, and this no doubt explains the atmosphere of verisimilitude in the novel. My background is in the biological sciences, not power engineering, so I am utterly unqualified to judge whether the technical details are correct. They feel real, in the same way as a convincingly constructed historical novel feels real.

All necessary technical information is explained as the story unfolds, partly through the eyes of a recently qualified graduate engineer learning his way around Fairview Station, so the reader knows enough to understand the story but doesn’t get overwhelmed. The characters are neither entirely good nor entirely bad, regular guys (and gals) each with their own concerns and hopes. Even the saboteur is given convincing reasons for his actions. There are a lot of characters, with no single individual dominating the story, and some readers may miss having one or a few central characters to identify with. I personally liked having a range of people to get interested in, once I got used to the idea that there was a large cast.

I found the beginning rather confusing. The story threads that will eventually combine at Fairview Station in May 1986 begin with different people at different times and places, and as the narrative skips back and forth between them it can be hard to follow. I had to go back and read parts again as I’d forgotten who people were and whether I’d met them before. It settles down after about 30-40 pages, once the story has moved to Fairview as an operational plant and most of the cast are in place. I also found the story seemed rather slow to start, with a lot of build-up before we get to the main event.

Once the event happens, the tension becomes genuinely thrilling as the engineers race against time to repair the damage before Fairview goes into meltdown. Who could have thought that attempts to fix an oil pump and a diesel generator could have a reader like me, with no mechanical knowledge, on the edge of her chair? For me, this aspect of the novel was far more gripping than the espionage aspect. The FBI and the KGB get to play a role, as they do in any number of thrillers, but the real heroes of Rad Decision are the mechanics and engineers battling recalcitrant machinery in an effort to avert a disaster. Will they succeed? Will the fix work? Will something else go wrong? That’s where the suspense comes from. I was reminded of the film Apollo 13, which also manages to generate nail-biting suspense without recourse to conventional mayhem.

A gripping thriller, firmly rooted in the real world, that will also painlessly teach you a lot about nuclear power.

Has anyone else read it?

11 comments:

Daphne said...

Nuclear power stations in Indiana?? I seriously don't know if we have any here or not, but it sounds like an interesting premise.

Ash said...
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Carla said...

Daphne - The power station in the novel is fictional, so it doesn't matter if there's a real one in Indiana!

Rick said...

Carla - all that would matter is that a nuke station in Indiana sounds plausible.

Even though this is somewhere between a contemporary thriller and hist-fic (since it involves a specific context of 20 years ago), it has suggestive implications for SF. You note that the plot depends heavily on the technology.

For the reader it would make no essential difference if this were all aboard a starliner. The author would have to make up convincing stuff instead of understanding real stuff, but the challenge of explaining it all gracefully to the reader would be identical.

Carla said...

Rick - quite right, in a way it doesn't matter where it's set as long as the reader is drawn into the world as it exists on the page. I found it interesting that it used a real technology, in the same way that I like historical novels that use real history.

Constance said...

Haven't read it, but anything with engineers is good for me. :) I'll scope out the public library and see if they can get it for me.

My problem with writing about engineers is I want to build small working models to understand the process better. Great for a catapult, not so good for a nuclear reactor...

Carla said...

Constance - yes, a working model of nuclear reactor would present practical problems, to say the least. But you could probably treat the reactor as a giant kettle element and model the safety systems, like the turbines, the oil pump and the diesel generator - they're the real stars of the show, as the key problem is getting water in to dissipate the heat from the shut down reactor.
If you have trouble getting it from a library, there's an e-book version available here.

Constance said...

I'll stick to road and bridge engineering for the time, thank you.

Cool, thanks for the link. My library didn't have it, not even in interlibrary loan. Which is why I buy a lot of history books. American, Renaissance, and 20th century we got covered, anything else, not so much.

Carla said...

Constance - that's one of the marvellous things about the web, its reach extends even further than interlibrary loan. I know we all used to manage without it, but, dear me, how?

Constance said...

How did we live before the Internet indeed. I've been scoping out Google Books and found some nifty .pdf downloads of books that willactually help my research. Without me having to hunt all over creation for the information. Heaven!

Carla said...

Heaven, indeed! Good for you. What's the research subject, out of interest?