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'Fifth Force': Cold War thriller without the Cold War

It could be argued that the only good thing to arise from Cold War days -- aside, of course, from worldviews slanted by the U.S.-Soviet duopoly, the holiday-peace-and-love sort of knowledge that instant flaming death could descend from the sky at...

It could be argued that the only good thing to arise from Cold War days -- aside, of course, from worldviews slanted by the U.S.-Soviet duopoly, the holiday-peace-and-love sort of knowledge that instant flaming death could descend from the sky at any moment without warning, and lest we forget, those wonderful East German figure skating judges -- is the genre of the Cold War military thriller.
From "Fail Safe" to "The Hunt for Red October," these books played on our fears and hardened our resolve to build up an arsenal capable of scorching this whole doggone Solar System if need be. But despite their dubious political overtones, these books were also fun to read, partly because they did scare the dickens out of us.
"Fifth Force Assembling," a new novel by John Uldrich, is an interesting throwback to this literary genre -- call it a Cold War thriller without the Cold War.
"Fifth Force" is about a top secret research project hidden away in a Tower-Soudan mine. While the cover story is about a University of Minnesota study (this study is, actually, not fictional), the real project is something much more sinister. When elite Russian commandos, trained to masquerade as American military officers, take over the facility with a group of unwitting reservists as accomplices, Caleb Quinn -- a retired Marine colonel with nerves of steel, an everyman sensibility and a keen intelligence -- is called into action. A blizzard is bearing down on the site and political intrigue thrusts the world again to the brink of nuclear war.
It's a Cold War thriller, all right -- complete with the hotline to the Kremlin.
Uldrich does a pretty solid job with this story. It's full of slam-bang action and believable, smart plot twists that keep readers going right until the end.
The book is also centered around interesting science, hence the title. Though too complicated to explain in depth here, it is understandable and adds another dimension to the story.
The characters are what you'd expect for this kind of book -- not exactly drawn to scale but workable. You have Quinn, the sensitive tough guy. The love interest is the beautiful, soon-to-be-divorced rural woman who proves her courage, resourcefulness and strength in the test of battle. Then there's the Ojibway former Navy SEAL who came back to the reservation to teach English. And the crusty geezer who fought the Ruskies back in the Old Country (Finland in this case) who can still handle a weapon, by gum. And a few others.
You know, the usual.
Not to be glib: standard thriller fare is giving the reader a hero to root for, maybe a love interest to salivate over (male readers, anyway) and role players to advance the plot. Uldrich does that. He does break from the stock character bag a little with two brilliant gay scientists who add interest.
The book is fairly violent, and some torture committed by the good guys may particularly trouble readers in an era of School of the Americas protests.
When it comes to the actual writing, there is room for improvement. Blame some on poor editing, but there are too many gaffes to dismiss. A good editor would have cleaned up the copy and worked to streamline the plot a bit, to avoid some repetitious sections. Call me old-fashioned, but editing is a good thing.
That said, I like some of the dialogue and the way Uldrich handled his scenes.
It should be noted here that at least as interesting as this story is the story behind the book. Uldrich lives in Shanghai with his wife Eva Chen Sao chan, a noted Chinese writer and photographer. A Grand Rapids native and Korean War vet, Uldrich writes that the "Fifth Force" is believed to be the first Western novel published in China since 1949.
I find this fascinating, particularly with world politics so central to the story. At least according to popular conception, American First Amendment sensibilities don't hold sway with the Chinese government. Is this a sign of changing times?
The drawbacks of this unique printing are noted in an addendum: the printing could be better and software incompatibilities goofed up the typography. Uldrich also acknowledges some grammatical errors (while absolving his college and high school English teachers). Nice touch.
Overall I enjoyed "Fifth Force." It's a fast-paced, intelligent work in the tradition of the thriller, set right in the heart of our own north country. And the author's addendum may be right -- in light of the publisher, it may be a collector's item.
Kyle Eller is the Budgeteer book reviewer. Submit your books for review to him in care of the Budgeteer News, 222 West Superior Street, Duluth, Minn. 55802. To talk books, call him at (218) 723-1207 or send e-mail to kyle.eller@duluth.com .

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