August 24, 2017
(+++) NOT QUITE THE SUMMIT
The God Wave #2: The God Peak. By Patrick Hemstreet. Harper Voyager. $26.99.
Second books of trilogies are in a difficult spot. They have to pick up where the first book left off, advance the story a lot but not too much, and set things up for the (presumably bang-up) concluding volume – all while providing a satisfying reading experience in and of themselves. It is difficult to pull off this balancing act, and Patrick Hemstreet does not quite manage it. His trilogy’s first book, The God Wave, was fascinating, suggesting the discovery of a brain wave that operates above the measurable frequencies of alpha, beta and gamma waves and that can lead to manifestation of superhuman abilities (which Hemstreet says are really human abilities) in the 90% of the brain that generally goes unused. Some willing suspension of disbelief was certainly needed, partly because the “90% unused” notion is a fallacy – but one of such long standing that Hemstreet could certainly employ it to good effect. And he did. He conceived of a partnership between two very different scientists. One, a neuroscience researcher at Johns Hopkins named Chuck Brenton, was looking for real-world applications of brain waves beyond their known ability to move the needle on an electroencephalogram. But Brenton lacked the mathematical expertise needed to pursue his studies, which is where MIT professor Matt Streegman came in. Motivated by the possibility of helping his hospitalized, comatose wife, the misanthropic Streegman decided to put his expertise in both higher mathematics and robotics to work pursuing Brenton’s goals.
The God Wave explored the inevitable consequences of meshing two very different personalities at the frontier of scientific endeavors. Brenton’s goal, to aid the handicapped and make sea and space exploration easier and safer, soon came into conflict with Streegman’s far less altruistic and more financially focused one, which led to military involvement in backing the scientists’ Advanced Kinetics lab. Some tropes appeared in the book: a one-dimensional character named General Howard, who soon had the lab working on complex research, for military purposes, with the super-secret Deep Shield; the usual notion that naïve Brenton did not realize what was happening until there was no turning back; and the emergence of the power of the scientists’ test subjects themselves. Soon enough, Lanfen, Mike, Mini, Sara and Tim discovered that military control of their growing abilities could lead to disaster, and also learned that their newly developed capabilities had given them powers of which even Brenton and Streegman were unaware.
So, far, so good. But The God Peak swerves from science-grounded speculation to standard action-thriller plotting, seeking excitement (and, admittedly, finding some) at the expense of the thoughtfulness that was the most unusual and attractive element of the first book, at the end of which half of the good-guy characters had fled from military control while the others locked themselves inside a mountain. The God Peak has the mentally superpowered renegades demand that all wars worldwide cease or else – raising the not-very-original question of whether there will be true peace if wars stop only because of the compulsion imposed on warring parties by even stronger parties. While that aspect of the story plays out, Hemstreet has Brenton and his followers make contact with a conveniently available secret society called the Benefactors – whose members have their own way of tapping into high-powered mental abilities. So we have Brenton and benefactors vs. Brenton’s former test subjects vs. much of the world, along with attempts to make the increasingly complex and increasingly absurd elements of the plot seem realistic by including references to the Daesh murder cult (often referred to as ISIS) and even to universal healthcare. The left-behind team members demanding world peace are not above using a significant amount of violence to get rid of Deep Shield and its minions; presumably this is supposed to deepen the story into one about using bad means for good ends. And the Benefactors are not entirely altruistic, by any means: they, for reasons of their own, want Brenton to do further research on extending and expanding psychic abilities. The God Peak fulfills its second-position-in-a-trilogy role competently enough, since it certainly does move the story ahead, does introduce new characters and new elements, and does provide plenty of plot complications that will have to be resolved in the third book. But The God Peak is much more conventional and much less interesting in its premises than The God Wave, which admittedly took some time to get going and never moved at the fast pace that thriller readers expect and want. That was the point, though: The God Wave was not merely a thriller – there was genuine thoughtfulness in it and some intriguing thinking about science, research, ethics and morality. The God Peak is far more conventional: here Hemstreet gives up any real attempt at profundity in favor of easier and much more formulaic approaches to pacing and characterization. The book works well enough for what it is, but what it is could have been a good deal more. Whether the trilogy’s conclusion will fulfill the promise of the first book, or continue along the easier route mapped out in the second, remains, of course, to be seen.