5, 6, 7 - how adjusting my suspension of disbelief helped me enjoy Jack West Jr

I read a lot of novels for fun, but also dissect them in the back of my mind, thinking about the author's craft: what works, what doesn't, why he or she has made the choices they have and whether I can learn anything for my own writing.

I've just finished re-reading some books by Matthew Reilly, an author that I like in many respects, but find frustrating in others. I first discovered Reilly when he published Area 7 , finding it to be a fun read with some aspects that bothered me a little, then gradually collected his whole set.

There's a lot to like about Reilly. He self-published Contest, caught the attention of mainstream publisher and went onto international success. He was an earlier adventurer in the e-book world, uploading free .pdfs of Hover Car Racer to his site way back in 2004. His style builds on the science-based techno-thrillers of Michael Crichton, military tactics of Tom Clancy, history/mystery of Dan Brown, secret agent gadgets of James Bond (more the movies than the Fleming novels) and shear action/adventure of Lucas & Spielberg's Indiana Jones.

But, as I've noted before, if Stephen King is the (self-described) "literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries", then I doubt Reilly would object if I called him the literary equivalent of Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay.

His Scarecrow series has a dubious relationship with laws of physics or realism - but it works on an escapist movie level: fast, fun reads with invincible heroes facing overwhelming odds, split-second escapes from traps and countdowns, and a hero who just enjoys blowing shit up. Ideal for reading on a long plane ride or blobbing out on the beach.

The above comment shouldn't be taken as diminishing my appreciation of the level of thinking Reilly puts into his books. It's not easy to write an action sequence that doesn't read like a thousand others, to create a new environment that catches the readers' imagination, to come up with a new take on a plot or idea that's been done a lot before1. He also creates intricate plots, where seemingly minor details in the first third have payoffs later on, where various characters' allegiances shift over time, and the hero characters sometimes die (including some who don’t come back to life!).

When I first read Seven Deadly Wonders (7DW, or 7 Ancient Wonders if you're not in the US), I found it disappointing, even less connected with reality than Reilly's earlier works.

My take was that the problem is that he keeps trying to make everything bigger, faster, more exciting … and winds up stretching credibility beyond the breaking point.

Part of the fun of his earlier works was the intense, geographically claustrophobic settings - Contest is basically Die Hard in a library [or Aliens vs Predators vs Humans, in a library]; Temple took its characters to a variety of settings in South America (and in two time periods); Ice Station was mostly set in or around the titular facility in Antarctica; Area 7 was also focused around two Air Force bases in the desert and their nearby environs, including a lake, with a brief trip into space(!).

It was Scarecrow, the third book in the Shane Schofield series, where Reilly upped the ante: the story was a series of missions that took the lead character all over the world, at one point using an X-plane to travel supersonically. Bigger and faster, yes, but the epic scope diminished some of the tension.

7DW took the same approach, even more embiggened2. Now the fate of the world is at stake, due to some doubletalk about a sunspot that zaps earth with intense solar flares every 4,500 years, which can be cancelled out by putting a golden capstone with a crystal in the middle on top of the Great Pyramid at Giza, to somehow absorb the radiation. Added to this is a prophecy/incantation around performing rituals on the top, to give power to a nation that puts its dirt in the capstone, thus triggering a battle between the US, Europe and the plucky group of small countries that have banded together, led by Jack West Jr, an Australian, to prevent the bigger powers getting even more power. The warring parties are guided by a pair of gifted kids - children of an oracle - with the mystical ability to read the ever-more-incomprehensible "Word of Thoth" inscriptions that provide clues, but these abilities are staggered so they can only read the clues just when the plot requires them too.

While his other books had fairly powerful McGuffins, this one takes the cake and moves it from his old stories set in a semi-realistic version of our world to a pulpy 1940s-era Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon-styled adventure with no attempt at being rational. Reilly uses the Arthur C. Clarke quote about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic as an excuse, but it feels a lot like a mumbo-jumbo cop-out.

West and his crew - 9 in all, a deliberate echoing of Lord of the Rings, complete with an Arab/Israeli hate/like double act that mimics Gimli and Legolas - hunt the sections of the capstones, which are hidden in the 7 wonders of the ancient world, most of which have now been moved to unexpected locations.

Just as the stakes have risen, so have the gadgets, and here Reilly feels like a teenage boy playing "wouldn't it be cool if…". Jack has his own 747, which he stole from Saddam Hussein! But, it's armored with gun turrets - cool! And it has VTOL capability -wow!! And, get this, it's also stealth!!! - really?

He also one-ups Dan Brown by getting into Freemasons and the Roman Catholic Church - both turning out to actually be off-shoots of Egyptian sun-worshippers (!) - and makes the bad guys American and European.

Because so much is compressed into the book, everything feels rushed. If I had an idea for a daring raid to free a prisoner from Gitmo, or to steal something from the Vatican or the Louvre, I'd make that the climax of the story, a 50-page epic - and Reilly had similar set-pieces as the last acts in his previous books. Here, he knocks each of these off in a chapter or two, before moving onto the next even bigger mission.

If I was rating 7DW when I first read it, I probably would have given it only 2 stars out of 5. My recent re-read of it, and its follow-ups Six Sacred Stones (6SS) and Five Greatest Warriors (5GW), makes me knock it up to 3 stars, because I've figured out the right framework to think of it - in the spirit of Indiana Jones and the 1940s serials Lucas's adventurer was channelling. If I can face Indy dealing with the wrath of God from the ark, 20th century Thuggee worshippers, and the healing power of the holy grail3, then I should be able to handle the Tartarus sunspot, but 7DW still feels less well-rounded than Contest, Reilly's first, and IMHO best, novel.

6SS and 5GW ratchet the tension up further, relegating the sunspot from 7DW to a warm-up act to a huge dark sun that is coming back to the outskirts of the solar system to zap us with even more spooky radiation, unless West and his opponents can put diamond pillars into 6 vertices a super-ancient civilisation built underground to do this last time.

This pair include more bad guys, including West's father, the British royal family, Saudis, Romanovs, Japanese suicide cults and a cannibalistic African tribe; super-huge temples and inverted pyramids that make the seven wonders look tiny; Loch Ness and Stonehenge; a race against time spread over two large books; multiple betrayals and the devastating loss of a main character just when he's needed4; and plot points involving Moses, Jesus, Genghis Khan and Napoleon.

Some reviews have also criticised Reilly for a combination of ignorance and racism, given his characterisation of an African tribe as ruthless killers and cannibals, who engage in primitive rituals, forcing the hero characters to fight for their lives, and then basically become cannon fodder to the heroes, who ultimately mow them down with heavy weapons. While the above is true, aside from the cannibalism, the description applies to all of the bad guy characters in the book, including Americans/Freemasons, Russians, Europeans/Catholics, Israelis, Japanese and Saudis, so I think this is less about racism than Reilly's desire to make everyone an overwhelmingly scary opponent for West and his crew.

All this makes it seem that, if I found 7DW disappointing, I'd find its sequels worse. But I actually enjoyed them more and would give them 4 stars. Partly because I've accepted the nature of the overall plot, learning to live with the more out-there SF elements, but mainly because I think these two are better-plotted and just more fun to read. You can tell from the Afterword that Reilly had fun writing a two-book sequence, doing lots of set-up in 6SS that paid off nicely in 5GW, so the double-act worked.

Looking back at what I've written above, I think it comes down to re-setting my level of willingly suspension of disbelief.

All fiction requires the author to suspend disbelief in some ways, but there's a continuum depending on how far-removed from reality the plot is. On a scale of 1-10, a non-fiction book, novelization of a real event or documentary would be a 15, while a full-on Star Wars-style space opera would be a 10. Star Wars is a great, fun movie, but it requires you to be in a mindset where you're ready to see: parallel evolution of humans on other worlds, some very non-human-looking aliens, aliens speaking English, faster-than-light travel using hyperspace, planet destroying weapons, laser weapons, cyborgs, and the power of the Force.

Most of the fiction I read would cluster at the lower-end of the suspension of disbelief continuum. Michael Connelly and Kathy Reichs, for instance, write police/forensics thrillers that incorporate anecdotes from cops and scientists into their plots to give them an element of reality. It's the evilness of the criminals, and the fact that Harry Bosch and Tempe Brennan seem to be attacked by the bad guys at least once a year, that require suspension of disbelief, putting their stories at a 2 or 3 on the continuum.

Other writers like Jeffrey Deaver or Tom Clancy still base their work on a lot of research, but tend to use more fantastic bad guys or incredible escapes, putting them at a 4 or 5 on the continuum. I'd have rated the original Ian Fleming James Bond stories around a 5, while the movie Bond's escapades go beyond that to rate a 007 (naturally) in terms of suspension of disbelief. In the upper reaches of the continuum comes the sci-fi stories, which may include some plausible extrapolations of today's science - most of Arthur C. Clarke's books would be 6 to 8, while Back to the Future, Terminator, Firefly, B5 and Star Trek hover around the 8 or 9 mark. Space opera, Oz stories or Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy-style books that adjust their reality to fit the jokes, would rate a 10 - this doesn’t mean they're bad, it just means you don't go in expecting a documentary narrated by Stephen Hawking.

Coming back to Reilly, I'd pitch his earlier books at around the James Bond movie mark of 7 on the continuum - enough implausible escapes and pseudo-science to let you know you're reading a fantastic adventure, but they all at least attempt to provide a scientific explanation for the craziness. The West books introduce dark suns, Earth-zapping sunspots and ancient races with magic-like machines, so are closer the to full-suspension of disbelief end of the spectrum - say a 9.

That swap in tone, moving from high adventure close to fantasy, is what threw me reading 7DW. I suspect this is the same reaction many people had to the ending of Chris Nolan's first between-Batman movie, The Prestige, which has SF elements hinted at throughout but still surprised and pissed off many people when they were revealed in the final minutes6.

So, once I was re-reading the West books, knowing exactly what genre Reilly was playing in, I found them more enjoyable - it just required me to re-set my expectations (in pretty much the opposite direction to when I read J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy - remove fantasy lens, apply cold, hard reality). Overall, I still prefer 6SS and 5GH to 7DW, primarily because Reilly's story is much more carefully plotted and feels less rushed when spread over two books.

I also found it good that Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves took Reilly back to a more claustrophobic setting - this time a former Soviet weapons base in the Arctic (with side characters running around DC) and somewhat more realistic . There's still a bit of Q’s first law of unlikely but ultimately useful gizmos, in that the heroes are given or acquire many cool gadgets that you’d never expect them to be able to use and you can guarantee that circumstances will arrive that require them to use precisely the toys they have on them, usually in some kind of MacGuyverish way. Some of his leaps of fantasy frustrate me (the Johnny-5 robot was cutesy and there were a few too many occasions where the main characters died and came back to life) but it was a fun ride ).

What does all of this dissection and critique mean for my writing? While I enjoy Reilly and Star Wars, the stories I write are more at the middle of the disbelief spectrum:
Project-52 would be a 2 - a murder mystery set basically in the real world;
Blue Prime would be a 5, largely because I've pushed it into a slightly heightened version of LA and use some high-tech, but not implausible, gadgets. I use the tag-line 20 seconds into the future and 2 degrees closer to hell as a set-up to get readers into the right mind-set about what to expect;
Black Storm is shaping up to slot in around a 3 or 4 - the modern-day pirates and private military contractors are based on their real world equivalents, but I've taken the Deaver approach of shifting the bad guys' intentions and actions a little towards the Bond world, while not going as far as Reilly would have.

Overall, I enjoy Reilly's novels on a lot of levels, even if they're not quite what I write or like a lot of the more hard-edged books I read, his stuff can be great fun.

  • 1. I know this from experience, writing Blue Prime as an attempt to take the concept of a comic book superhero and put them in the real world.
  • 2. This is a Simpsons joke rather than a typo.
  • 3. The less said about the crystal skull aliens the better.
  • 4. Think Gandalf the Grey, Kosh and Dumbledore.
  • 5. Argo is a great, counter-intuitive example, in that Tony Mendez's book (and the Ben Affleck movie based on it) has a ridiculous plot that should have gotten Mendez laughed out of every publisher's office, but he had the ultimate defense in that it based on real events (even if the movie was somewhat adjusted for dramatic effect).
  • 6. I loved The Prestige - it's a very clever and well-acted movie that sets up two mysteries and resolves them in ways that seem surprising, but are actually exactly what the characters have been saying since they were first presented - very clever story-telling.