Book Review: The Fall
by R. J. Pineiro
Thomas Dunne Books, 2015
When professional daredevil Felix Baumgartner made his now-famous epic skydive in October of 2012, stepping off a sub-orbital platform 24 miles above the ground and free-falling for over four full minutes, at one point topping 850 miles per hour and thus becoming the first person to break the sound barrier without mechanical aid, before coming to rest on the ground in New Mexico as gently as if he were stepping out of bed, plenty of live commentators instinctively compared the whole thing to science fiction. That somebody could not only manage such a feat but make it look so easy seemed like something out of fiction, not fact.
And his down-soft landing likewise seemed oddly anticlimactic. Of course Baumgartner had prepared extensively for his jump, but even so, the watching imagination expected a man flying at supersonic speed straight at the ground to do something, to swoop or wave or encounter something amazing – not simply to drop to the ground and float to a landing.
Of course, real life governed by hum-drum physics seldom works this way, and into that gap now comes R. J. Pineiro’s crackerjack new novel The Fall.
As the novel opens, federal contractor Jack Taylor has signed on to test new suborbital-jump technology under development for the US government, using a state-of-the-art jump suit partially designed by his wife Angela (whose handiwork he can admire even though relations between them have recently become strained). But even with all his cutting-edge equipment, Taylor is starting to wonder if he hasn’t perhaps taken on too much:
Trapped inside this tiny pod hurtling at more than five thousand miles per hour to reach and altitude two and a half times as high as the well-advertised jump by “Fearless” Felix Baumgartner a few years earlier, Jack couldn’t help but wonder if he had gone just a bit too far this time. This was not the relatively easier jumps from the stratosphere that Baumgartner and USAF Colonel Joseph Kittinger before him had accomplished. Jack was at the official edge of space, deep in the unforgiving thermosphere, about to reach the exact height where Alan Shepard flew Freedom 7 back in 1961, marking America’s entry into the space race with that historic fifteen-minute suborbital flight.
He makes the jump, and then Pineiro steps in with some nifty, no-nonsense John W. Campbell-style science fiction. Just like Baumgartner, Taylor makes it safely to Earth – but it’s a different Earth from the one he left. It’s close in most ways, but different in a couple of key factors, foremost of which is that in this world, Taylor died five years earlier. As he investigates, dazed, he naturally wonders if the strain of the experience is playing with his mind:
He closed his eyes, wondering if he could be suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder. Although SEALs rarely suffer from PTSD, primarily because they had volunteered for combat-related duties and had gone through extensive realistic scenario training, making them better mentally prepared, Jack still contemplated the possibility, which effects varied from depression to delusions.
Am I delusional and just don’t know it?
But it quickly becomes clear to him that he’s not delusional: he’s in an alternate reality – one in which Angela still deeply loves him, and one in which his bosses and the US government now want him dead. Pursued by a scheming, power-mad general and baffling his few allies in this new world, Taylor goes online to Wikihow, learns how to disappear completely and create a new identity, and he and Angela go off to new identities off the radar of their vengeful allies.
No, you silly thing! This is a science fiction novel! No, instead, Taylor realizes that he has to return to his own reality – and that the only way to do that is, you guessed it, to duplicate the jump that got him here in the first place.
There follows just about as well-executed an adventure-sci fi story as 2015 has seen so far, a first-rate thriller delivered by a seasoned pro. Last year had Andy Weir’s The Martian; this year’s clear torch-bearer is Pineiro’s The Fall.