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Book Review: Chain of Events

By (November 13, 2014) No Comment

chain of events coverChain of Events

by Fredrik Olsson

Little, Brown, 2014

Retired cryptologist William Sandberg’s life has fallen apart at the beginning of Fredrik Olsson’s new thriller Chain of Events, and he’s trying to end it just as he’s kidnapped by a shadowy organization and pressed into service in decoding a mysterious and vitally important cipher that’s a nearly-impenetrable combination of Sumerian cuneiform and computer code. He finds himself working alongside a beautiful young student linguistic specialist Janine Haynes, who’s been translating those cryptic Sumerian verses and then arranging them:

Janine pointed to the Sumerian verses. ‘I never got them in this order,’ she said. ‘But you know how your brain works. You start searching for logic. You automatically start creating a context. Because you think there has to be one, that the pieces you have must be part of a puzzle, but you don’t know how they’re supposed to go because you’ve never seen the lid of the box.’

It’s a way of thinking William Sandberg can readily understand; it used to be his passion:

This was his field, it was exactly what he’d once worked with, and precisely the type of challenge he relished. Finding the complex rules that always hid somewhere, regardless of how impossible or chaotic a code might appear at the outset. Testing and changing variables and testing again to see if it gave a result. It was maths and intuition in a combination he loved, few things in life made him more excited than finding a pattern in something that seemed to be nothing but a jumble of letters on a piece of paper, watching it reveal its face like a crossword where one single letter solves everything.

Their research is being conducted against a backdrop of world-wide crisis: a mysterious virus is rampaging through the human population, and it quickly becomes obvious that there’s a deep connection between the mysterious organization that kidnapped our heroes and the mysterious virus that’s devastating humanity. What Sandberg and Haynes discover is mind-boggling: there are messages written into the genetic code of human cells, and the messages, once Haynes translates them, seem to be predicting events:

Rats. Disease. Contagion, death, an unstoppable plague.

The Black Death.

Moon. Three men, big ship, long journey.

“Why?” Sandberg wonders, “Why were there codes in human DNA? Who put them there? Nobody. It is what it is.”

Olsson shifts the focus from these cloistered research scenes to escalating and chaotic action-scenes set in a dozen exotic locations, all done in a slick Da Vinci Code manner designed to keep the reader turning pages.

If the Da Vinci Code reference isn’t tip-off enough, let’s be more explicit: it would be difficult to over-state the stupidity of Chain of Events. Leaving aside the enormous, incompetent effrontery of simply it is what it is punting your own book’s central concept, there are still gaping problems on every page of this tired, derivative novel. Every single component of the thing is a cliché: the mysterious organization (actually called The Organisation) that’s omniscient and nefarious, a burned-out middle-aged ‘specialist’ who’s gruffly romantically available but displays no actual competence in his speciality; the pairing of that middle-aged specialist with a much younger woman who’s both compassionate and emotionally childlike; the brainlessly cinematic jump-cutting of scenes designed solely to create the illusion of meaningful action; the infantilizing of intellect through some shopworn Maguffin that makes all expertise the moot, helpless plaything of ancient prophecies; the over-arching and ultimately hateful idea that the older something is, the wiser it is; the utterly unrealistic way the fate of all humanity devolves almost immediately onto the shoulders of a two mere schmucks, who then do a lot of running around … there isn’t a single independently-created thought in this entire thing.

It’s depressing to think of the mental calculations – conscious or not – that must have gone into the manufacture of such a shallow, manipulative cartoon of a book, and it’s even more depressing to think it might be an accurate reflection of what commuting business people like to read. It is what it is. Gold help us.