In the wake of Fukushima, and with the knowledge that nuclear power plants around the world are beginning to age, G.P. James has written a ‘what-if’ story based around the Bear Mountain nuclear power plant in Peekskill, New York. An unexpected earthquake leads to damage at the plant and a battle for control of the reactor by the experienced engineers working there, led by Trace Crane.
A lot of people, thinking of a control room supervisor in a nuclear power plant, will inevitably think of Homer Simpson, but the only thing Trace and Homer have in common is that they are both overweight and they both have a family. The story is told largely through Trace’s eyes as he fights, with his highly-skilled crew, to bring the rogue reactor back under control, all while worrying about his wife, Avi, and their daughter. Sections are told through Avi’s eyes as a member of the public outside the plant, dealing with the aftermath of a major earthquake and evacuation of an urban area.
The blurb for this book is pretty misleading. While it says “As the condition of the reactor plummets and radiation is released into the environment, Trace is left to choose between saving the nuclear plant, the East Coast, and the twenty million residents of the NYC metro area or finding his family and saving himself”, in reality, there are no good choices here, as the engineers at Fukushima must have discovered in the wake of the tsunami. There is no derring-do and saving the day heroics. There is no feel-good ending here, for anyone.
The technical detail in Meltdown is well-written and feels thoroughly researched, and I felt like we really got to know Trace and Avi through glimpses of their lives together, told in flashback. The problem was that these personal sections, while helping to give the tragedy a human face, also served to slow the pace of the story to an absolute drag at times. The author’s long-wided phrasing didn’t help. I knew I was in for a heavy read when I started the book and the first two sentences were 52 and 65 words long respectively. Apparently G.P. James’ editor hasn’t heard of the truism that the first sentence should be short, snappy and hook the reader into the story.
This definitely doesn’t have ‘the pace of the Bourne Identity’ as the blurb claims. It’s a slow, heavy wade through the life of a boring man called upon to perform some extraordinary deeds and still failing to win the day. As a thriller, you’ll be bored stiff. However, as a terrifying prediction of how a crisis at a nuclear plant on the East Coast of the US might play out, it’s an intriguing read.
As such, Meltdown isn’t not easy to rate. At the end of the day, I picked it up thinking I was getting a thriller and was decidedly un-thrilled, so I think I’ll settle for three stars.
Meltdown is available now.
Disclaimer; I received a copy of this book for review through NetGalley.