Ken Carodine,
All the Tea
(Timberwolf Press, 2000)

"Techno-thriller," as this book describes itself, is not a genre I regularly read -- partly because of the restricted set of the characters in the examples I have read. They are mostly white men, and whatever their race, they are almost invariably middle-aged and powerful in ways in which I am not, nor is anyone I know. I have less in common with the typical spy than I do with most of the imaginary aliens I encounter in science fiction. (One can speculate that this reflects a lack of imagination on the part of the SF writers rather than dearth of realistic characters in spy fiction, I suppose, but I digress.) Author Ken Carodine breaks with this tradition admirably, including women in a variety of positions of status and power, on all sides of the conflict, as well as including a very broad racial mix on "our" side. The two main characters are a black Navy man and hero, and a black female nuclear scientist who is also an involved and caring mother. The other American characters fill a range of ethnicities, including mixed, and are drawn from a variety of geographical areas within the U.S. with a refreshing lack of prejudice towards each other, and curiosity towards and acceptance of their differences. It's a welcome change, and I wish some of the hard SF writers would do the same.

Unfortunately, this breadth of humanity is the novel's strongest feature. The characters, though broadly based, act and react based almost entirely upon the requirements of the plot rather than seeing their actions spring from their characters, experiences or worldviews. It is difficult to keep track of who's who, despite the helpful and invaluable heading for each subchapter detailing the place and time of its action. This isn't helped by Carodine's habit of referring to the same character in a variety of ways within the short subchapters -- by first name, last name, title and position. While I doubt that conversation to share information in high level conferences leaves the participants much room for individual voices, it was very confusing; a consistent nomenclature would have helped me to keep track of who was saying what. This was less of an issue in other parts of the book, but mostly because the cast list was smaller. None of the characters came alive for me, either in their thought processes or in dialogue.

The plot had all the elements of excitement, but followed the basic conventions closely enough that there was very little suspense. In particular, a tropical storm which ought to have added a non-human tension, perhaps even requiring the temporary cooperation of enemies, was instead treated as a technical difficulty at best. The identity of the spy was obvious despite the token red herring.

I don't read this genre often because I dislike the politics described and taken for granted therein. I found it quite offensive that the president (no party affiliation given) would divert public monies to a secret project intended primarily to enhance his re-election bid. It was perhaps even more offensive that no mention was made, ever, that this was inappropriate -- even when the plot escalated the potential consequences to a point at which a nuclear strike was seen as a reasonable precaution. I sincerely hope that this sort of behavior is only fictional, particularly if nuclear bombings might be included!

It was odd, to me, that the lead female scientist was allowed to bring her teenaged son to a location that was devoted exclusively to a secret -- but inconsistently classified -- project. There was no compelling plot reason to do so, either, so I assume he was included to give some comic relief. This would have worked better if his behavior was more consistent, or if he'd come across as a likeable though bratty kid.

I found it extremely implausible that a Chinese national would have been able to pass as an ethnic Japanese. There are significant physical differences among the Asian nationalities, and unless the Chinese physically resembled his Japanese grandfather (which ought to have been mentioned, and which could have motivated his character in interesting ways), I don't think he could have passed under an assumed identity to the point of a high Japanese security clearance.

While the scientists resisted allowing their project to be taken over by the military, with the necessary plot complications, it seemed poorly motivated. Surely they knew that the military would utilize their work for weapons as soon as they published! Their real risk was that a heavy classified label would be stuck on their work which would prevent them from publishing and force them to either change their area of research or be drawn into the military labs.

(The plot has nothing whatsoever to do with tea, in any quantity, except that one character did drink a cup once.)

I could go on with critiques of the plot, but think I've made my point. While competently pieced together out of diverse elements, many of the pieces did not hold up to examination for me. Another disconcerting aspect occasionally was Carodine's use of language; it struck me as examples of what I call "thesaurus abuse," where someone is looking for a new way to describe something and chooses a word from the thesaurus that, though technically synonymous, is just -- well, odd -- in context. For example, at one point someone "reveled at" a road cleared through the jungle. What??? Carodine's characters also "smirked" and on one occasion "leered" when I would think this would be quite inappropriate indeed! I wish writers would refrain from using words unless they were personally familiar with the ways and contexts in which these words are used outside of reference volumes. A badly chosen word can jerk a reader out of the plot and distract him or her with speculations about why that word was chosen, and what the author was trying to convey.

I wanted to like this book. I was very impressed by the diversity of the characters in it. I hope Carodine continues to write; I also hope that he broadens his own reading to enlarge his work in plausibility, context, characterization and word usage. He might also benefit from reducing the scope of his plot; an elaborate one such as this cannot be properly developed in a short novel, while a smaller scope would allow him to more fully explore his cast and their interactions.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]

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