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Author Roman Lando contacted me not too long ago and asked if I’d be willing to review his science fiction novel Progress Report. I said I was willing and he sent me a file compatible with my old Kindle Fire.
I was in the middle of another book at the time, but finally got a chance to dig into “Progress” starting a few days ago. In print form, it would be only 239 pages, so not a long read.
In broad strokes, the first and last third of the book is an action, adventure, techno-thriller involving an unlikely hero (patterned very much after the author) who is working with an alien and a covert agent to stop other aliens from starting World War III.
Unfortunately, in the middle third, there was a very long, expositional data dump along with a great deal of pseudo-science and psuedo-philosophy that took most of my interest away. Everything is told from the journal entries of the protagonist “Art” and Art is extremely “wordy.”
The book ends setting things up for a sequel, but it’s almost…well, I won’t say a “cartoony” ending, but there was something of a juvenile feel in the latter part of the book akin to Disney’s 1986 film Flight of the Navigator.
The book starts with Art apparently trapped in an alien spacecraft in orbit around the Earth. With no way off, and his cell phone’s charge waning, he decides to chronicle the adventures that brought him to this point.
In more detail, Art, a Russian Jewish immigrant to Canada by way of Israel, is a web designer, socially awkward nerd, and serious drone hobbyist. In fact it’s the latter that gets Art in trouble when, upon crashing a drone into an unseen barrier at the edge of a forest, he discovers what seems to be a force field. Naturally, his ever-present toolbox contains an old cell phone with a camera and everything he needs to set up a small surveillance unit in a tree to watch whatever comings and goings occur at the anomaly.
The book is set slightly in the future where just about every piece of technology including motor vehicles is electronic and part of the “Internet of Things” (IoT). That means no privacy and in many cases, no autonomy for people. In fact at one point, Art says:
There’s not much freedom or privacy in the West anymore – you have given it all up long ago in exchange for security and convenience.
I like this guy already. He pictures the future as definitely dystopian, although maybe not at the George Orwell – 1984 level yet. Maybe.
His spy camera pays off and he sees someone enter the barrier. Hoping to catch the person and follow them back to where ever they live or work, Art drives out to the site and sees the person just leaving. He follows him and that’s where things go spectacularly wrong.
In a matter of minutes, various motor vehicles try to run him off the road and kill him. Apparently something has taken over the self-driving mode of the cars and are using them as weapons.
His own car smashed but with him still unharmed, Art leaves the scene of an accident (with CCTV cameras ubiquitous, the “regular” police must have a warrant out for his arrest), he gets on a bus. He trashes his phone because it’s being used to track him. Then Art works up the nerve to ask another passenger, an attractive Emo girl, to help him.
She does surprisingly, which is the first of many inconsistencies the book solves later on (and a number which it doesn’t).
I’m not going to give you a blow-by-blow, but while there was high adventure involved that kept me engaged, there were other things that bothered me. Art describes himself as a person with wide interests but many of them go only about an inch deep. Others we don’t find out about at all until Art needs to display them.
For instance, he has a casual interest in martial arts, more for the exercise than to learn fighting skills, but somehow he manages to fight off a drug dealer and take his gun. Then we discover he casually goes to a shooting range with friends, but doesn’t know much about guns. Except, that is, to correctly identify the semi-automatic handgun he takes off of the dealer. He is able to use the safety as well as release and reload the magazine while putting a round in the chamber.
Later in the story, he accurately identifies several assault and sniper rifles and uses one to kill an alien, capping another with his handgun without missing either time.
It goes over the top when, while attempting to escape pursuers, he finds a seaplane at the shore of a mountain lake, and remembering that some kids had once took and flew a trainer plane without experience, manages to take off in the seaplane after reading the manual, then safely landing it again on a separate body of water.
I’m sorry, but no matter how smart he is, there’s a little thing call experience, which is why you have to take practical flying lessons rather than just learning how to fly on a simulator and by reading.
As an aside, there was an early 1970s TV show called The Delphi Bureau starring Laurence Luckinbill as the protagonist Glenn Garth Gregory. The “gimmick” of the show is that Gregory was a researcher for a small, little-known government agency and he had a perfect photographic memory. Although not a “field man,” he frequently found himself on adventures and saved himself and others more than once by obscure information he remembered and acted upon.
In one episode, he and his love interest for the week were trying to get away from some “bad guys” by taking off in a small, single-engine aircraft. Although Gregory remembered everything about the aircraft and flight procedures, he couldn’t get it off the ground. Finally stopping, he quipped something like, “I guess some things do require experience.”
That’s why Art shouldn’t have been able to use a seaplane to take off, fly, and then land without either failing to become airborne in the first place or ending up crashing.
Art does receive the aid of an alien information database he can wear on his head like a cap which later enables him to communicate to alien spacecraft AIs. Tia, his would-be girlfriend, turns out to be an agent for a secret alien-observing organization who had been following him and took advantage of his predicament on the bus.
The book, except where it dragged in the middle, is a lot of fun but events occur that are just a little bit too convenient and that happens repeatedly. Not that our hero doesn’t encounter a lot of problems and challenges to overcome, but I thought the author was a little too quick to resolve them. It’s a common trait among authors including me. Once you create a problem, you want the hero to overcome it, if for no other reason than to alleviate the tension.
But the tension is the point. Once things get bad, you make them worse instead of better. Not worse enough to kill the hero, but enough to make you think he or she are about to die. Also, if the hero is supposed to be good with martial arts, guns, and planes, establish them up front so it’s not such of a surprise (or mystery) that they abruptly are able to do things the reader not only doesn’t anticipate, but are totally shocked by.
Yes, it is satisfying that Art is able to save the world from a nuclear holocaust along with his super-hot soldier/agent girlfriend and a sapient (sentient just means it can feel, like a cow or sheep can feel) database/AI in a spaceship that, while not indestructible, can be invisible, travel at supersonic speeds, and is probably smarter than Stephen Hawking.
None of this means I didn’t enjoy the book. I did. It was fun. More than a little of it was tongue-in-cheek whether intended or not.
As I said, at the equivalent of 239 pages and priced modestly, it’s a quick read and an entertaining ride. Remember, it’s not paranoia if they’re really trying to get you.