Sunday, September 12, 2010

Countdown to Armageddon

Book review 2010.11

Author: Edward M. Lerner

Countdown to Armageddon is the front half of a new flip-book by Edward M. Lerner. The other half of the book is a collection of short stories called A Stranger in Paradise.

Countdown to Armageddon is a short novel about time travel, terrorists, spies, and love. Time travel is a topic that I hate because it's rarely done well and often creates more plot holes than it fixes. But in the hands of an accomplished sci-fi author like Lerner, it's put to good use.

I really like his philosophy of time as a linear stream with a fixed rate of speed, and his stance (in this story) that time travel cannot create divergent realities. The main character refers to that popular notion as preposterous because of the immense amount of energy that would be needed to create those realities. So Lerner very clearly sets up the premise that there's only one reality and it's very difficult to alter it. That means we're playing for keeps; no temporal take-backs. (Sort of. Time travel never plays by the rules.)

The crux of the story is about two men who take a one-way journey back through time chasing a terrorist who is armed with an atomic bomb, and who intends to change history by having the Moslems defeat the Christians back in the day. The main character, Harry, is a historian and armchair physicist. Both of these areas of expertise come into play when he is approached by Terrance, a former Interpol agent, now fellow historian, to track down the villain.

This book is also part love story. Harry's chief motivation for saving the world is his love for his wife, Julia. Sounds sappy, I know, but Harry and Julia are a great quirky couple and we get to see glimpses of their relationship and love.

Now, one thing I liked about this story is that it capitalized on an era of time that I (and likely most readers) know very little about. Taking place in the 8th century, ancient Europe is just starting to settle into its modern geo-political structure.

Because of my lack of familiarity with them, it was sometimes hard for me to keep the political groups straight. Lerner keeps the story moving at a steady pace and never falls into the trap of diverging into an extended history lesson. Just like with the main love story, Lerner only gives us what the story needs to keep moving forward.

There was only one scene in the book that I thought was unnecessary: a very short scene early in the story when Julia is having lunch with her sister. The scene is there to affirm that Julia really does love Harry and to broaden her characterization, but it's unnecessary because Lerner does a great job characterizing their relationship all through the story. She's awesome and easily worth the risk of Harry's life and future. Ah, there's that time travel thing again.

On to the other half of the book. A Stranger in Paradise is a small collection of short stories where we can see the breadth of Lerner's writing style. These stories were varied in theme and setting, and I enjoyed them all.

Overall, I liked this book a lot. I found it to be fresh and interesting, and the format allowed me to read more deeply of an author I'd never read before. I'll be looking into some of Lerner's other works. And I'd really love to see more of Harry Bowen!

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