Monday, September 16, 2013

A Report on "Report"

I make fun of formulaic writing -- you know the type: You pretty much know what's going to happen because you've seen it done a thousand times before, and, by golly you're right.

Then there's formulaic writing that's so damn good you don't. Notice. The formula.

That's how I feel after reading Robert C. O'Brien's "A Report from Group 17," a taut, adult thriller that kept me reading right to the end where I deliberately had to slow myself down so I wouldn't skip paragraphs to get to the end to see what happened.

And you know what? He doesn't let you off the hook. Well, off of one hook, but clearly not off the other. I won't go into further details so as not to spoil the story if you've never read it before.

This book is better than "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH," which I read as a child and constantly re-read. I never thought I'd say that about an O'Brien book (pity he only wrote four, and thanks to the Idaho Youth Ranch Thrift Store, I've now read all four of them). The sciencey bits are there in tons (even if the science is outdated; polywater, once heavily believed in and used as a plot device in no fewer than TWO Star Trek episodes, does not exist). But at the time it was plausible, and O'Brien's way of writing this into a formulaic science fiction mystery story is fresh as a daisy.

Yes, I enjoyed this book. On at least two levels. First and foremost, for the story. But secondarily, it's a wonderful exercise in how taut writing, an ear for detail, and a willingness to let the reader be one step ahead of the heroes but not so far ahead that they know what's going to happen turns formulaic writing into magic. O'Brien also follows the tenet of writing what you know, or at least what fascinates you, which is pretty much the same thing. He presents enough science to make the story eerily plausible; I haven't been this pleased with science in science fiction since I read Frank Herbert's "The White Plague."

So seriously, go read this book.

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