Tuesday, May 29, 2007

"Richter 10" (novel): Taming the earthquakes

Review of the novel titled Richter 10 by Arthur Clarke & (Late) Mike McQuayFirst half of this book is outstanding; next quarter is good; last quarter is positively lousy, & completely unrelated to rest of the story.

The most irritating thing I find in all Clarkian novels - the tendency to spend a lot of time on threads totally unrelated to main story - is here in full glory. In spite of this, I have no hesitation in calling the first half the best among all Clarkian novels I have reviewed to date (current one is #17).

This story is actually not written by Clarke. It was written by late Mike McQuay to outline provided by Clarke - in a manner similar to Rama sequels.

Story summary (spoiler).

The story spans the lifetime of the main protagonist, Lewis Crane, beginning late 20th century.

There are three memorable scenes in the story, all in first half: a little boy rendered a cripple & an orphan by an earthquake in US; a callous administration letting an entire village die unnecessarily in Japan; & unscrupulous politicians & businessmen letting thousands die unnecessarily in big quake in US. Each of these scenes borders on horror, & yet there is a lot of optimism.

First scene introduces the hero, Lewis Crane. In a milder, but still very moving, variant of similar opener in Jean Auel's "The Clan of Cave Bear", the little boy loses use one arm, his parents, & his house in an earthquake in California.

Next we encounter Crane as an adult, world's foremost expert on earthquakes, a Nobel laureate, a top grade entrepreneur, & founder of the Foundation - his research organization. And now finally ready with his first big earthquake prediction months in advance - at a Japanese island called Sodo. The quake will destroy most of the island, & one entire inhabited village called Aikawa.

Only trouble is: no one believes Crane. Villagers & local government are unhappy because this prediction has ruined tourist traffic. Crane has collected world media for the event at a small spot on the island that will survive, & but a lot of media is covering the event from air.

And here we get the second big scene. Mayor arrives with cops to arrest Crane & deport him because they see him as scaremonger. That is when the quake hits. Everything is to prediction. When the dust settles, the village is a beach.

Crane is now a celebrity & harbinger of the evil. That is when he decides to raise funds for his bigger & super secret project: banish quakes by stopping all tectonic activity - by fusing together the plates comprising earth's crust at strategic places, about 50 locations in all. Using atomic bombs in a way that will direct their power towards earth's core, without any damage to surface.

Next major scene is a big quake prediction in some parts of the US bordering Mississippi river; in between, we have seen Crane directing rescue at a volcano (Pelee) affected island (Martinique) in the Mediterranean - but that was a minor thread. Only problem is: elections are soon due, & someone has figured a way to benefit from the quake. In a bizarre twist, field data of Foundation is intercepted & forged by the villain. Result is: Crane prediction is too soon by a few months. Crane loses credibility.

When Crane figures out the reason, & the fact that quack is still coming, there is a problem in communication - he needs to get credibility. Enter Harry Whetstone, his billionaire benefactor & friend. He convinces Harry to bet most of his $3b wealth on his prediction. And our friends go public with a wager: at 2:1 odds, our friends offer wagers of $50 each that quake will happen on new date. Wager is quickly lapped up.

Come D-day. Government is publicly denying any quake possibility. Public is against our friends, though there are sympathizers. In a relief camp set up at a safe location near to-be-worst-affected areas, Crane & his benefactor are arrested.

Of course, the quake hits as predicted. Our friends are on the scene directing relief. Crane emerges larger than life after the event. He has returned the $3b borrowed from friend, & now has enough money for his Foundation from the won wager that he no longer need depend on any external sources.

To kickstart his big project - the fusing of tectonic plates, Crane has some help from earth. About 20 years down, there will be a quake that will split much of California from rest of US, & make it a Pacific island. With widespread loss of life & property. And this event can be avoided - by putting the first "spot weld" joint somewhere in western US that will also substantially cut down the number of quakes worldwide.

He enlists political support, sets up a secure facility on the lines of US bomb making project in 1940s.

Rest of the story, about a quarter of the book, is bizarre - to say the least. And second rate, at least to me. And links with many tangent threads that have already been introduced into the story.

Falling apart of Crane with his main technical man Dan; Dan joining a muslim fundamentalist organization; terrorist attack on the secure facility that destroys the facility & kills Crane's wife & child; formation of an Islamic state within US. And introduction of more tangent threads - creation of a colony on moon, & their mining of water from permafrost on Mars rather than from Earth!

Among the other tangent threads in the story are: Middle East as a radioactive wasteland, a radioactive cloud that has been moving around earth for decades, ozone layer gone, Europe & US as Third World, & the world dominated by Africa & China. At one stage, we are told the world is 70% muslim, & US is mostly black & hispanic! These threads spread all through the book.

There is a stage where some sanity could have been introduced into the plot. Dan's key technical objection to Crane's fusion project are probably sound: there would not have been any life on earth if earth could not renew itself with tectonic activity; how do you know you are not banishing future life from earth? But this angle is never developed & quickly abandoned.

The book describes a lot of tech toys - brain implants, mood enhancing drugs, wrist-worn computers, projector-based televisions that normally use clouds & outside of public buildings as display surfaces, aural implants, flying cars, ... I wonder why just quake taming was not enough sf!

End of the book is the big quake in California. Crane & Dan have made peace, & will be committing suicide in the quake together!

Key characters.

  1. Lewis Crane: Hero - the man who will banish the earthquakes.
  2. Dan Newcombe aka Abu Talib: Close associate of Crane. The man who imparts mathematical rigor into Crane's predictions.
  3. Lanie King: A computer simulation expert. Girlfriend of Dan, & later wife of Crane.
  4. Harry Whetstone: Billionaire friend & benefactor of Crane. Plays a crucial role at one point in the plot.
  5. Burt Hill: Kind of majordomo of Crane. The man of administration who ensures Crane can focus on important things, & not have to worry about details.
  6. Sumi Chan: A Chinese woman in US who has faked her appearance, & hidden her sex from world for some weird & unfathomable reason. People think she is a he. Rises to be a US president in his male avatar, & later becomes second wife of Crane.
  7. Kate Masters: A politician, & a friend of Lanie & Chan.
  8. Mohammed Ishmael: A separatist & a terrorist. Prominent through the book, but is part of a tangent plot unrelated to main story.

Fact sheet.

Richter 10, novel, review
Author: Arthur C Clarke & (Late) Mike McQuay
First published: 1996
Genre: Science Fiction
Rating: A

See also.

  1. Jean Auel's "The Clan of Cave Bear": Opener where a child is the only survivor of an earthquake is very similar. Though Jean's story is more heartrending.
  2. Robert Heinlein's first published story, "Life-Line" (1939). There is much similarity in plot - both stories involve predicting something that is well beyond our current capabilities, both see the main protagonist die at the end, & in both, the main protagonist plays a similar stunt to get recognition from public as a prophet rather than a charlatan - by betting a large sum of money with whoever prove the prophet wrong.
  3. "The Ghost from the Grand Banks" has some very similar earthquake scenes. Also, volcano Pelee on islands named Martinique is involved.

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