THE LEVIATHAN EFFECT
By James Lilliefors
Soho Press, $25.95
Catherine “Cate” Blaine is serving as Secretary of Homeland Security in this meteorologically driven thriller. As a former congresswoman and the daughter of a general, she knows how to exhibit confidence as she navigates the political environment; but she is as ill-informed as the president and the rest of his team are when it comes to a new form of hi-tech terrorism: weather manipulation.
The premise sounds implausible until the author engages the reader in the science, and then the various “what-ifs” start to fall into place. If you start with the seeding of clouds with silver iodide to promote rainfall — a science long known and practiced — it is not an impossible leap to consider a government-funded project involving the re-engineering of natural conditions. Let’s say it’s a time of considerable climate change (which it is), and drought can be alleviated through the use of laser and other technology. All well and good. But what happens when government funding runs out, and the project is taken over by a shadowy group that resorts to blackmail over whether to “mitigate” (as it’s known) or intensify the strength of a hurricane? Will the president agree to pay up? Does he have a choice?
The Chesapeake is the most threatened region in this political thriller. The recent destruction of Moore, Okla., by a fierce tornado and the deaths of seasoned storm trackers were obviously not part of the author’s plan. Nor does he dredge up the unbanishable memory of Katrina for cheap exploitation. But thoughts of these real-life catastrophes will add to the suspense the reader feels. And for the conspiracy-minded, it looks like someone high in up in the U.S. government may be working against the administration despite the urgent need for unity and focus with a multi-billion dollar disaster looming. The book reads like a gathering storm — which is, of course, the chief protagonist/antagonist throughout these pages.
A few well-placed individuals are being proactive, while most of the nation sleeps, unaware of all that portends. Given the power of her position, Secretary Blaine enlists allies from among the nation’s top scientists to help her sort through clues; at the same time, a string of murders going back several years are linked to the present crisis. Are the Chinese involved? The Russians?
An ex-CIA case officer named Mallory is following leads that promise to bolster Blaine’s search for answers, as the clock ticks down and a deadlier storm than anyone has ever seen nears shore. Leviathan. Going back to the Old Testament, it refers to a sea monster that cannot be stopped.
We’ve all seen weather-tracking computer models. There must be a subject in a graduate school somewhere called forensic meteorology. Geo-engineering. Why not? The president’s science advisor explains the forces of nature, what they can do, and what they can’t. “Something about Hurricane Alexander isn’t right, sir,” he says. “This storm is not reacting to changes in the atmosphere the way a storm system should.” By the time you get to the line, “What man-induced trigger would have caused an earthquake that killed seventy thousand people?” you half-believe that it’s already happened.
James Lilliefors puts his extensive research to good use without letting climate science smother the plot. He even has a wry sense of humor, to judge by his treatment of one of the key players in the book: Vice President Bill Stanton. It’s a thinly veiled Joe Biden, an impulsive “Pennsylvanian” who rides Amtrak and bursts forth with lines like: “I mean, come on, guys.”
The author is also pretty convincing in describing how presidents since John F. Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis organize ad hoc approaches to a national emergency without alerting a panicky public. The Leviathan Effect is more “scenario-driven” than character-driven, which fans of more traditional (British) thrillers might have preferred. But the book’s Americanness gives it an immediate visual quality that shouts “Make a Bruce Willis movie out of me.”
Andrew Burstein is Charles P. Manship Professor of History at LSU, and the author most recently of Lincoln Dreamt He Died. His website is: http://www.andburstein.com.