Friday, March 18, 2011

Book Review: 'Vector' by Henry Sutton

2 / 5 Stars

‘Henry Sutton’ was a pseudonym used by the American poet and playwright David Slavitt (b. 1935) when he was writing ‘popular literature’ for the paperback market during the 60s and 70s. ‘Vector’ was published in 1970 (Dell, 320 pp.); the artist who provided the striking cover design is uncredited.

‘Vector’ takes for inspiration a March 1968 incident involving Dugway Proving Ground, an Army test facility located in a remote region of Utah. It seems that in the course of conducting an open-air release of the nerve gas VX that involved spraying the agent from a jet plane, the Army screwed up and exposed Skull Valley, 30 miles away, to the gas. As many as six thousand sheep in Skull Valley were killed or permanently injured by inhaling VX. 

The Army initially tried to blame the sheep casualties on pesticide spraying, a half-witted excuse that fooled no one. The Army wound up paying compensation to the ranchers. As a consequence of the sheep kill, in 1969 President Nixon banned open-air testing of CBW agents.

(The 1972 film ‘Rage’, starring George C. Scott, also is based on the Dugway incident ).

With this novel, Sutton adopts the documentary style used by Michael Crichton in ‘The Andromeda Strain’, to relate a tale in which a virus, rather than a nerve gas, is accidentally released by a test plane. The virus drifts onto the small, dilapidated town of Tarsus, Utah. Soon a number of townspeople are ill with fever and a physician at Dugway, Captain Norman Lewine, makes a visit to Tarsus. What he sees raises deep misgivings within the good doctor, and thus a few hours later an Army intervention team descends on the stricken town.

But even as medical care is provided to the sick and dying, generals and administrators in Washington, DC are meeting to determine how to respond to the incident. Will the government tell the truth about the Tarsus disaster ? Or will it try to cover it up ? And if a coverup is put in place, what will happen to any survivors ? For the Intelligence Agency directors in DC care more about the preserving their elite weapons testing programs than they do about 70 people in some squalid little Western town…..

 ‘Vector’ starts off promisingly, with author Sutton ably mimicking Chrichton’s approach of relating events in a low-key, dry manner that emphasizes the immoral, clinical detachment of the higher-level admins surveying the accident’s consequences. The first 100 pages are engaging and hold the reader’s interest. 

Unfortunately, once the book hits its midway point the narrative starts to drag, and the novel suffers from being about 100 pages too long. I won’t disclose any spoilers, but I think most readers will see the denouement coming well in advance.

‘Vector’ is an interesting effort, but in my mind it can’t join ranks with ‘The Andromeda Strain’ as a must-have example of the late 60s – early 70s bio-catastrophe thriller.

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