A few weeks ago, responding from a challenge from a young acquaintance, I subjected myself to reading one of Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt adventure novels.
This young fellow’s contention against me was that, though I have a reputation as a literary kind of guy, and a technology-savvy kind of guy, I am too snooty to appreciate the kind of “techno-thriller” Cussler has made a fortune specializing in.
Confessing my ignorance, though not any snootiness, I undertook to read at least one such book to see if I liked it.
As fortune would have it, the Yukon College library had a Dirk Pitt book available on one of its paperback exchange racks, and one that had a title of interest to me, because I have a passion for Homer and the story of Troy: Trojan Odyssey.
I count myself lucky that I got this book for nothing, because it means that I ended up wasting only time and suffering on this appalling piece of twaddle.
Does that sound snooty?
OK, if taking offence at bad writing, bad plotting, bad science and bad technological ideas is snooty, call me Mr. Snooty-pants.
Like many otherwise unpleasant experiences, though, this one had a positive effect: It made me think a bit about how risky the business of writing technology-based fiction really is.
It is very easy for such writers to lapse into an obsolescence that makes them a little bit sad, or a whole lot ridiculous.
Cussler is a case in point.
He established his wealth and reputation more than 30 years ago, writing about deep-sea diving technology, and cars, and boats and airplanes.
He continues to write about those things, and structure plots around those things, when the world of information technology has rendered many such plot structures ridiculous.
The plot of Trojan Odyssey, in so far is has one at all, is a classic example of a too-successful, too-lazy celebrity writer knocking off a formulaic adventure story, blissfully unconcerned with its technological blind spots.
Without going into too much detail about the action of the novel, suffice it to say that the initial driving enigma of the story is a brown crud infestation in the Caribbean waters off Nicaragua.
The incomparable Dirk Pitt and friends are tasked by the US government with finding out the nature and cause of this infestation.
In the course of doing so, they stumble across a devilish plot that will put all of Europe and the eastern seaboard of North America into terrible danger.
Pitt and friends undertake this investigation in a high-tech boat loaded with state of the art scientific equipment, taking chemical samples of the crud and looking for its point of origin.
In the course of doing this, they have a number of perilous encounters—first with what appears to be a ghostly ship load of 17th-century pirates, then with a heavily armed, lavender-coloured yacht operated by the rich, powerful and secretly criminal Odyssey corporation.
Being the adventurous types they are, of course, they defeat the pirates and the evil yachtsmen, and eventually discover a tremendous, secret tunneling project going on under the surface of Nicaragua.
This is the source of the danger to North America and Europe, and also the source of the crud that is killing the Caribbean waters.
(The bad guys are getting rid of the soil created by their mammoth tunneling project by processing it and secretly pumping it out into the sea, some distance from their tunnel.)
All of this is pretty much standard James Bond-style stuff, and, if you are reading without too much serious attention, moderately entertaining in the way that predictable formula stories like this can be.
The problem arises when you stop for a few seconds to think how stupid it is to have Dirk and friends sailing around on a boat in dangerous waters, when their two objectives in doing so—obtain sample of the crud to examine its nature, and find out its point of origin—could be accomplished much more safely and easily.
Robots could easily go collect crud samples, and satellite photography would be much more effective than a naval expedition at locating the epicentre of this crud infestation.
But for some reason it does not occur to Pitt’s employers that this could be done; neither does it appear to occur to the evil Odyssey corporation as a possibility.
This techno-blindness would not be an issue, of course, if the novel were set in 1973, the year the first Dirk Pitt novel was published.
But Trojan Odyssey was published in 2003, and is set in the then-near-future year of 2006.
Google Earth did not exist in 2003 (though its prototype, developed by Keyhole Incorporated did), but high-resolution satellite photography certainly did, and is even mentioned in several places in the novel.
But Cussler, who insists on talking about people “punching in code” on their computers when he really means they are typing in commands, clearly does not any real grasp of what satellites and computers can do.
So, compounding the rickety plotting, the inarticulate prose, and the papier-mache characterization, he also comes across as technologically obtuse.
To be fair, Cussler is not really interested in meeting the literary and intellectual demands of an old guy like me.
His Dirk Pitt novels are essential slightly sexed-up and technoed-up Hardy Boy adventures for recently pubescent boys.
His problem now, though, is that today’s newly pubescent boys are very much aware of things like satellite photography and computers.
If he looks a little out of touch to me, he has to look very seriously out of touch to them, his core audience.
It is therefore fitting (though it happened purely by chance that I chose this particular book), that Trojan Odyssey marks the end of the Dirk Pitt series—at least the end of the series in which he is the major hero.
The final scenes are of Dirk finally getting married and settling down.
About time, too, since his methods are now so ridiculously out of date.
Maybe he and Cussler should get together in retirement and thumb through the latest Computers for Dummies book.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.