Sunday, August 01, 2010

Book Review: Code to Zero

I don't read fiction much anymore--too busy filling my head with nonfiction, I guess--but when it's a book about space and even my non-space-fan mother is willing to read it, I figured I'll give it a whirl. I'm glad I did. Ken Follett's Code to Zero is a brisk espionage thriller set in 1958, just prior to the launch of America's first satellite, Explorer I.

The story centers around Claude Lucas ("Luke"), an aerospace engineer who has lost his memory and has to figure out the how and why of it. It's rather like a Robert Ludlum story, and the author does a good job of mixing the personal and "professional" aspects of the story to draw in the reader. In fact, the reader will find more than a nod to The Bourne Identity, which also featured a protagonist lacking his memory but not instinctive knowledge of some difficult or dangerous skills.

Swirling around "Luke" are a CIA agent of dubious motives, an estranged wife, a contentious former friend from his college days, and an old flame he left behind. The narrative bounces back and forth between Luke's past history with these old acquaintances in the early 1940s and 1950s and the main storyline in 1958. The reader is clued in that Luke's story has something to do with Explorer I, as each 1958 chapter opens with a brief factual blurb about the rocket or the satellite. The blurbs read a bit like some of the public information I've written for NASA, so I recognized the content, if not the style.

The author makes some effort to get the "feel" of his time right; this comes across most obviously in how people dress (hats on men, skirts on women), get around (cars, trains, and multi-stop airplanes), and communicate (land-line telephones only). The action centers around Washington, DC, Huntsville, Alabama, and Cape Canaveral, Florida--then as now major centers of space-related activities. I didn't catch any glaring errors in the author's depction of 1958 Huntsville, and noted with interest that he had consulted with the late Ernst Stuhlinger in his research (the book was written in 2000). Otherwise, Follett devotes most of his prose toward delving into the characters and their actions.

If I have any gripes with the book, they are with regard to Follett's incorporation of a few too many Dickensian coincidences. Our hero has a problem with his memory? Make his old flame a psychologist. He hasn't seen many of his old friends in years? No sweat--he's wandering the streets of the city where they happen to live and work. There are others, but far be it for me to spoil too much. The author (and the main character) gets the job done, and the end of the story satisfies, which I can't say about everything I read these days, so that that much is right with the world.

If you're looking for a decent suspense novel without an overt amount of sex, violence, or language, give Code to Zero a read. You'll consider the time well spent

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