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Sunday, November 28, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Nisi Shawl
A wild yet theoretically possible thriller involving ex-KGB agents, maverick cosmologists and a microscopically small black hole, "Singularity" is Bill DeSmedt's first novel. It's also Seattle publisher Per Aspera's first book. By basing their infant reputation on the debut of this unknown Pennsylvania author, this new local press has made a big gamble perhaps a smart one. DeSmedt's clear descriptions of everything from the core of a typical star to the sinister device an assassin uses to mimic a wolf's bite make it easy to follow his swiftly swooping story line.
"Singularity" begins with a vivid, almost cinematic reconstruction of the Tunguska Event. In 1908 a mysterious explosion devastated acres of remote Siberian tundra. Its impact registered on scientific equipment as far away as Germany, and sunshine reflecting off the resultant high-altitude debris illuminated London's night skies so brightly it was possible to read a newspaper by their light.
Speculation as to the cause of this real-life occurrence has ranged over the years from a meteorite to a crashing UFO. Basing his plot on the hypothesis that the Tunguska Event marked the Earth's collision with a miniature black hole, DeSmedt doesn't stop with merely making that unlikely-seeming idea plausible. He goes on to ask what its implications might be.
The novel's main action takes place during the present day. An athletic young woman working for a top-secret U.S. government agency charged with watching over the intellectual fallout from the Soviet breakup, Marianna Bonaventure is hot on the trail of a Russian scientist with the potential to create weapons of mass destruction.
The scientist has apparently slipped away from Russian authorities. On the high-rise rooftop where she's sure she has her quarry trapped, Marianna runs afoul of a mercenary killer who dumps her down an elevator shaft and flies off with the scientist in an ultralight airplane. With McGyver-like intrepidity, Marianna rescues herself, then uses all her wiles (feminine and otherwise) to persuade the novel's male protagonist to join the hunt.
A reserved, nerdish systems analyst, Jonathan Knox's intuitive approach to problem-solving provides a perfect counterpoint for Marianna's James-Bondian exploits. At first she's attracted to him for purely pragmatic reasons: During his days as a Russian exchange student, Jon became acquainted with both the scientist Marianna seeks and a man who works on the yacht where the ultralight landed. Later, of course, more carnal concerns bring the two even closer.
DeSmedt's depiction of Marianna is more action hero than action figure. She feels lust, remorse and ambition; she's resigned to intimidating most men she meets and defiantly aware of the ways her body comes up short when measured against their ideals. Still, Jon's point of view is one the author finds more familiar (like his creation, DeSmedt has lived in Russia and reads science books for fun). So there's an extra depth of intimacy to his writing, as when after a night of passion, Jon watches Marianna perform her morning exercises, which he sees as a sort of erotic ballet. "A man could get used to this," he thinks then quickly changes his mind as she segues into "a lethal-looking kickboxing sequence."
A third major character, colorful, cowboy-hat-sporting cosmologist Jack Adler, has his share of adventures at the Tunguska site, but his main function seems to be to explain to Jon and Marianna just exactly what former KGB agents and other enemies of glasnost would want to do with a captive black hole. Which, contrary to the hopes of the wayward scientist, turns out not to be providing the world with clean, dependable, nearly free energy. Their plans are decidedly sinister, as "Singularity's" plot orbits ever tighter, ever faster around the conclusion at its core.
Nisi Shawl reviews science fiction for The Seattle Times.
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company
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