Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Book Review: 'Demon-4' by David Mace

2 / 5 Stars

‘Demon 4’ was first published in Britain in 1984; this Ace paperback (184 pp) was released in 1986 and features a cover painting by John Berkey.
‘Demon’ is part techno-thriller and part SF, and something of a European version of ‘The Hunt for Red October’, the 1984 novel that shot Tom Clancy onto the bestseller lists in the US that year.
Mace’s tale is set in the near future, in the aftermath of a nuclear war between the Eastern Bloc and NATO. Most of Europe has been scorched by nukes, selected cities in the US and Russia have been nuked, and with most First World countries out of armaments, there is an uneasy truce between the exhausted warring parties, who now must deal with aggressive overtures from former bottom-feeder nations such as Argentina.
A large undersea fortress, termed Krak-1 (‘Kraken-1’), lies on the sea floor north of Antarctica. Entirely governed by computer control, Krak-1 refuses to stand down now that the shooting is supposed to have stopped; in fact, it now sees all military units as a threat, and the sea lanes in the region are deathtraps for vessels and aircraft. As the novel opens, an effort to ‘talk down’ Krak-1 from its belligerent status fails miserably, and the few NATO assets left in Antarctica are depleted.
Rather than trying to use a nuke to destroy the fortress, the civilian command dispatches Barbara  Kastner, a civilian engineer, to a military outpost located on Grande Island in the Kerguelen Island archipelago in the southern Indian Ocean. There, Kastner is charged with overseeing an effort to eliminate Krak-1 using Demon-4, a newly constructed mini-submarine with advanced weaponry and stealth technology.
What sets Demon-4 apart from previous iterations of its design is the incorporation of a cyborg in its command and control function; literally slices of a dead soldier’s brain are kept in a small vat of nutrient media and wired into the sub’s electronics. It is hoped that Demon-4’s unique AI will allow it to slip past the formidable defenses planted on the sea floor around the perimeter of Krak-1, and gain access to the inner reaches of the fort. There, more than 4 kilometers deep in the chilly, dark waters of the Southern Ocean, Demon-4 will have to rely on its limited arsenal of torpedoes and missiles and to destroy the fortress…before Krak-1 destroys the Demon.
Having read Mace’s other nautical techno-thriller, ‘Firelance’, I knew what to expect with ‘Demon-4’: rather than a ‘Go USA !’ treatment akin to the Clancy novels, the novel is infused with a cynical, mordant attitude towards the military mindset and the politicians nominally in charge of the warriors.
Mace never tips his hand as to which side- Krak-1 or Demon-4 – will ultimately triumph, so the narrative retains its suspense to the very end.
For me, the major drawback to ‘Demon-4’ is its prose style. Mace lards too many of his sentences with too many metaphors, similes, excess adjectives, and excess adverbs. The result can be more than a little labored:
Beneath the embalming snow cover was a magnificently obscene marbling of true ice and brown ice and vomit pale mixes of oil and frozen water.

Beside it rested a black toy, a sea creature child a mere ten metres long.


He ran the fan up to power, the bottom sighed in vague doppler shaded ghosts sliding behind, the propulsion jet faded in a smooth stream. He went at full speed towards the fort.

Mace made considerable advances in paring down his sentence structure  with ‘Firelance’, released in 1986, two years after ‘Demon-4’. But readers interested in ‘Demon-4’ should be prepared for a more ornate, and intensely descriptive, prose style than may be the fashion nowadays.

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