John E. Stith
Tor Books / 384 pages / April 1997
Some authors take their time, steadily setting the scene, developing the characters, building the tension — easing you into the situation. John Stith grabs you by the arm and yanks you into the centre of the action. It’s a one-page-no-turning-back kind of thing. There’s no stopping until you reach the final page.
And how fiendishly “they” set this book up for us. From the briefest introduction, we find out a horrific accident is going to happen. Later, the survivor of the catastrophe and the man alleged to have caused it will be assigned to a mission to explore a strange, new visitor to our solar system. As big as a moon, it’s slightly different; this one’s organic. And at least some of the team isn’t going to survive the expedition.
With teasers like that, readers will find themselves tearing through the novel, racing to find the culmination of these hints. The first two chapters rocketed by as I sought the gory details of the accident. It is indeed horrifying and at the same time riveting; the literary equivalent of a train wreck. And every page pulls with the same intense magnetism, too strong to fight and easiest to surge forward at top speed.
But, slow down for a moment. Take time to savour the artistry of Stith. Authors who can flesh-out characters with this kind of skill are few and exceedingly far between. With an economy of words and a subtlety of expression, Stith presents us with fully-formed people. People we quickly come to care about — the “good” and the “bad.”
Perhaps the secret of Stith’s gift for characterisation lies in his empathy for the people and creatures on his pages. These are no cardboard cut-outs with bubbles of dialogue scribbled beside them. The “cast” of Reckoning Infinity thinks and feels and hates and doubts. They are no closer to the superheroes they’d like to be than we are.
Humans elicit our sympathy and garner our support in a way the superhuman never can. It becomes important to us that the characters survive, and that they will eventually thrive, provided they escape the seemingly hopeless situation they find themselves in.
Stith even takes one of my pet peeves and transforms it into another way to explore and understand the characters. I would venture to say I am not the only one who loathes those books and, especially, films where dangerous situations are the cue for the leads to break into witty repartee, the likes of which the audience could not match with a comfy chair and an hour’s preparation. Stith’s people crack wise and produce some genuinely amusing lines, but it is the release of stress, sheer exhaustion, and frayed tempers that spark the exchanges. These are not Oscar Wilde comments we cannot imagine springing from terrified and tired lips; they are exactly how we might respond.
It could be us up there. And maybe that, even more than the irresistible promise of danger and thrills, is what draws us again and again to Stith’s novels, and leaves us hungry for the next one.