Home » OL Weekly

Book Review: The Leviathan Effect

By (February 28, 2013) No Comment

The Leviathan Effectthe leviathan effect

by James Lilliefors

Soho Press, 2013

The gods of theater are even more fickle than the gods of love, so we can’t be perfectly certain – but nevertheless, it’s likely that the made-for-TV 1999 thriller “Storm” will be the last on-screen pairing of Luke Perry and Martin Sheen. In the show, Perry plays a sexy maverick meteorologist, and Sheen plays a forceful, straight-arrow general, and the thing that brings the two of them together is the science-fiction monster at the center of the story: somebody has figured out a way to weaponize the weather. In “Storm,” that somebody is the U.S. Government – Sheen’s megalomaniacal general wants to have storm-control at his fingertips, which gives Perry’s sexy maverick the heebie-geebies. When an artificially-created hurricane changes course and seems headed for Los Angeles, Sheen is confronted with the horror of what he’s helped to create, and Perry – despite being exactly 5 feet tall in real life – has to take matters into his own hands at 20,000 feet.

Watching “Storm” now, fifteen years later (admittedly, not something too many people are rushing to do), feels eerie for a number of reasons, and not just because when we see Sheen as an Army general we automatically think he’s been demoted (President Bartlet was megalomaniacal in such a cuddly way). Due to the accelerated pace of global climate change, nearly half of the most costly and destructive U.S hurricanes in the last century have happened in the last 15 years. In October of 2012, Hurricane Sandy did almost $100 billion in damage, and it was far from the strongest such storms can get. The idea of such destructive power under human control is tough to contemplate.

That’s just the idea at the heart of James Lilliefors’ gripping new thriller, The Leviathan Effect. Catherine Blaine, secretary of Homeland Security, gets a message on her supposedly firewalled government-issue cellphone telling her that three recent natural disasters were in fact man-made, and that a fourth would take place the following Monday in Europe. The message is signed “Janus,” and Catherine soon learns that she wasn’t the only recipient: a small group US officials – including President Hall and the Vice President Stanton (extremely recognizable as Barack Obama and Joe Biden) – have also been warned and told they have the power to stop these disasters from happening. In a parallel plot, Lilliefors’ nominal hero, former covert intelligence op Charles Mallory, has learned that a short list of the planet’s most innovative scientists have either gone missing or been found dead.

Those two plotlines converge intriguingly under Lilliefors’ brisk handling, although the nominal thriller-architecture of his book is nearly tipped over by the fact that unconvincingly macho Charles Mallory is so much less interesting than conscientious single-mother Catherine Blaine. While Mallory is off chasing down this or that, Blaine often finds herself the sole skeptical voice at the table in exclusive meetings she has with the other message-recipients. The predicted disaster does indeed strike Europe, and further messages warn that a hurricane forming far off the U.S eastern seacoast is also man-made and will put Washington D. C under ten feet of water unless President Hall pays five billion dollars to a group of people (one of whom is named Victor Zorn, just in case you were wondering whether or not he was innocent) who represent a business consortium that has developed weather-control technology sufficient to dissipate the impending storm.

Blaine steams with indignation that President Hall – earnest to do something about that huge hurricane (and eager for a big-picture Presidential legacy) – seems so willing to deal with these all-but-openly professed terrorists. She’s noticed on more than one occasion the president’s intellectual remoteness; how he often “closed his eyes, as if he were disappearing inside some private thought, then opened them again. He could do that: go somewhere else, like he was playing an entirely different chess game in his head.”

When she’s not in these tense meetings, she pursues the question of ‘geo-engineering’ with any experts willing to talk with her, including her meteorological mentor Doctor Sanchez, who stresses the complexity of the thing:

“Do you know what natural disasters are, Cate? They’re adjustments. They’re not isolated occurrences that come out of nowhere. The weather is a big interrelated process, with no national borders. Hurricanes transport heat out of the tropics, helping to balance the planet’s heat budget. If you strengthen or weaken them, you’re going to affect weather elsewhere. If you artificially create monsoons in one part of the world, you may create drought in another.”

(He’s not the only one who condescends to her like that – at one point the President asks her how many nations have sent a man to walk on the moon; she takes it all like a good team player, but I doubt a female author would have put her through it in the first place)

One of the book’s gloomier premises is the inevitable necessity for ‘geo-engineering’ in the first place. Lilliefors has obviously done a fair amount of research – and he’s come to some stark conclusions that he puts into the mouths of his exposition-deliverers:

“… if you accept the premise of global warming, then there are really only two options for how you deal with it: you reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which, of course, is what everyone talks about. Or else you mitigate the effects of those emissions.”

“Through geo-engineering.”

“Yes. For the first option to really work – to reverse the effects of climate change – would require reducing carbon emissions by eighty percent. Which isn’t feasible … Did you know that Exxon Mobil has spent thirty million dollars over the past decade to discredit the idea of man-made global warming?”

This kind of cynicism sits oddly alongside the Ludlumesque antics that fill the balance of the book; it’ll take a die-hard thriller addict indeed not to be impatient whenever the narrative focus shifts from the sense Catherine Blaine is trying to make of her rapidly-changing world (and her always-sharp observations about the powerful men with whom she has to deal). Lilliefors has a weakness for completely inconvenient red herrings (the White House chief of staff is actually called Herring), most egregiously in the form of Blaine’s impatient, own-drummer young son Kevin, and our author also, like so many 21st Century fictionalists, can no more orchestrate a satisfying climax than he can sprout wings and fly to the moon. But readers will be caught up in The Leviathan Effect just the same for its conviction and speed – and for its unintended but ungodly timeliness.