I’m going to be blunt here: Pulse is a fairly maddening book. Not because it’s entirely bad – that, at least, would be consistent. No, what’s frustrating about Pulse is how wildly uneven it is – how it starts strong, with good prose, interesting characters, and great setup, then falls into some painful writing for a while, then picks itself up…and so on, until the end of the book.
The concept of Pulse is basically there in the title. All over the world, gravity is coming and going. At some points, it seems to fail completely; at other times, it increases. The effects are naturally disastrous, but the bigger question – what does it all mean, and where does it lead? – is what drives the story. And while Freitas has a decent enough explanation, what really matters is that we’re engaged with the plot and the characters along the way.
Freitas has a big cast of characters here, ranging from a fighter pilot who crashes in Russia to a firefighter and his estranged wife, from a scientist to a reporter, and so forth. What’s fascinating, though, is the way that some characters – and their chapters – are so much better written than others. The pilot, for example, is part of a gripping tale, one that mixes survival instincts, chases, and more, and it’s told engaging, moves well, and never feels awkward or stilted. The reporter and the scientist, though? It’s painful to read, with dialogue that feels painfully bad, descriptions that switch from past to present tense randomly, misspellings (when you can’t spell the name of the star system around which your plot revolves, there’s a big problem), run-ons, and more. And given that the reporter and the scientist occupy the majority of our time, that’s a big problem.
Then there’s the erratic plotting. Some parts of the story – say, the fighter pilot, or the firefighter’s arc – are engaging and well-crafted, driven by character needs, written well, and gripping beyond the basic plot level. We care about these people, their stories are interesting, their worlds fleshed out. Others are bizarre. There’s a brief interlude about a stepmother who comes right out of a fairy tale only to die in a ridiculous way that no one seems to care about at all except to laugh at. A religious meeting could provide an interesting window into how people cope with these events, but instead turns into easy jokes and jabs (and much the same could be said about the brief trip to a trailer park, which is snobby and condescending in the worst way). One character has been kicked out of NASA only to be drafted at the last minute to fly a space shuttle, which never seems to have been mentioned before. And so on.
The thing is, there’s some good material in Pulse, and some stuff that shows promise. I get the feeling that Freitas wrote the core of his story, then went through and added the other chapters later, and they feel stronger – they feel like the work of a better author, one who’s listening to feedback and improving in his craft. But they can’t make up for the deeply flawed and weak other chapters. I’m going to check out at least one of Freitas’s short stories, just to see which Freitas is the “real one”; let’s hope it’s the one who got me hooked into the book before I got frustrated with it.