James A. Moore,
Fireworks
(Meisha Merlin, 2001)

Fireworks is the worst kind of novel. It's not great, or even good. But neither is it so bad that it's laughable; at least then it wouldn't be boring. It's just mediocre.

The plot revolves around a top-secret branch of the U.S. Army, Project ONYX, and their more-or-less invasion of the town of Collier, Ga., when a UFO crashes into the town's big lake. The town is immediately sealed off from the outside, placed under martial law, and the outside world gets the story that a terrorist has taken the town hostage with some kind of biological weapon. This explains the communications cutoff, the armed barricade around the town and the disappearance of the news crews that attempt to get pictures of what's going on inside. (However, it fails to explain how no one else in the UFO's flight path noticed a giant flaming projectile, or how the UFO's crash and subsequent evaporation of Lake Collier caused no significant environmental impact. No rain, no screwy weather patterns, not even a major shockwave, as near as I could determine.)

The soldiers of Project ONYX wear solid black containment suits that double as body armor, and Moore tries to use the suits' appearance to make the soldiers seem menacing and alien. But, like everything else that might add distinction or flavor to the novel, any effectiveness these suits might have had is completely undercut a third of the way through the novel. I'm half-convinced Moore wrote this book specifically with the intent of selling the film rights, as the level of plot and character development fits right in with what we might find in a two- or three-episode TV miniseries. It also seems like Moore is trying to capitalize on the success of Stephen King (who uses small-town and oddball characters) and The X-Files (elements of conspiracy, UFOs, mysterious government agencies), and somehow manages to end up duplicating the worst failings of the above, rather than their successes.

James A. Moore's biography on the back of my review copy states he's been writing for 10 years and lives in Atlanta, Ga. Now, I've lived in the Northeast for almost 15 years, but I was born in the South, and if I want an example of how a Southerner thinks or acts, all I have to do is talk to my father or grandmother, both of whom are from the deep South. Why Moore, who lives in Georgia, couldn't seem to find some real Southerners to model his characters after is a question I'll leave to someone better equipped to handle it; the only indication that these people are from southern Georgia (as opposed to, say, small-town Maine) is the occasional use of such stereotypical Southern expressions as "flapping her gums" and one particular character's description as having a Southern gentleman's accent (though Moore couldn't be bothered to actually describe it as such).

One of the other major problems I had with this book was the lack of technical accuracy. Moore starts off describing the soldiers as equipped with state-of-the-art, mysterious weapons and vehicles, and then goes on to leave the forces driving blatantly generic American Humvees, rather than some sleek, uber-advanced land vehicle in line with the helicopters used by Project ONYX. The soldier's body armor starts out sounding high-tech and exciting, but becomes excessively mundane and even somewhat backwards; we're asked to believe the armor isn't even as advanced in some degrees as the ballistic armor used by contemporary SWAT teams.

There's a communications blackout after local telephone circuits are commandeered by the military, but many of the secondary effects of this are never considered. The local supermarket continues operations, with the assumption that no one ever uses checks, credit cards or debit cards requiring dialup authorization. The locals continue to watch TV, but how are they getting the channels? They're clearly getting more than local broadcasts (which, supposedly, the UFO is interfering with anyway). Cable is relatively rare in the rural South and a minidish wouldn't work without phone lines. Can everyone in Collier afford a big satellite dish?

Just how many people live in Collier, anyway? Late in the book, the number of people there at the time of the crash is given as 2,000. But the size of the town and the facilities available there aren't consistent with a place that small; I was guessing something closer to 10,000 or 12,000. I couldn't build a consistent picture of the town, its inhabitants or the people of Project ONYX. The only thing that seemed to be mildly interesting, the UFO, was for the most part ignored, except for one bit of tantalization that, in retrospect, made little sense to include in the book.

This book reminds me of a movie I saw recently that attempted to turn jousting into a medieval version of modern professional sports, complete with half-naked fans, face painting and the Wave. Granted, the only real resemblance between the two is in overall quality, but at least the film managed to be so wildly and unapologetically off as to be entertaining in entirely the wrong ways. Fireworks doesn't even manage that much.

So if you see Fireworks on the shelves of your local book emporium, leave it there and hope it goes away.

[ by Sean Simpson ]
Rambles: 2 March 2002



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