About a month ago, I read John Freitas’s Pulse: When Gravity Fails, a speculative science-fiction novel about a series of gravitational waves that are rocking the Earth. At the time, I commented on how frustrating the book was – that parts of it were genuinely engaging and exciting, while other parts were badly-written or painfully ham-handed. The question, then, was what came next: more of the good, or more of the bad? And, as I should have almost guessed, the answer was “both”.
Freitas’s first follow-up, a short story named “The Quantum Brain,” is basically a heist story set during the final gravity waves that rock the Earth. The idea is a solid one, and for much of its length, “The Quantum Brain” is a lot of fun, giving us a wonderfully amoral protagonist who thinks he’s above the law and capable of anything. The idea of using the Pulse to cover up a heist is a good one, and Freitas stages the action nicely, taking his time, emphasizing the planning that’s gone into it, and generally conveying a sense of excitement that keeps it all moving. There are some issues still (why are there guards there, if everyone else has been sent home under martial law?), but for the most part, things work until after the heist concludes. Then, suddenly, it’s as if Freitas realizes that he doesn’t have an ending. Things start rushing and becoming less clear. The quantum brain that got stolen suddenly becomes something more, and turns itself into its own deus ex machina. Plot threads are left dangling in what could be a tease for a sequel but instead just feels bewildering. It all ends up fizzling out the goodwill that the first part of the story delivers, and that’s a shame, because the story shows that Freitas can write a fun tale when he wants to.
That’s more than can be said for the confusing, baffling “Oh Hell No!”, a time travel tale whose connection to the Pulse series is tenuous at best. “Oh Hell No!” takes place in the distant future, where mutated descendants of humanity are doing their best to prevent the louse-conveyed plague that’s decimated their planet. That’s a pretty tried-and-true time travel formula, but it’s not one that lends itself entirely well to a short story. Freitas rushes the establishment of his future world, and it ends up being more of a confusing series of moments than anything coherent. The same, really, can be said of the plan to go back in time; while I sort of pieced together what the crew was attempting to do, it never really made much sense, and the stakes of the whole thing never really came together in any sort of meaningful way. Beyond that, “Oh Hell No!” brings back Freitas’s worst tendencies as a dialogue writer, once again delivering some painful, clunky speech that sticks out like a sore thumb. “Oh Hell No!” might have worked better if it was longer – it feels weirdly abridged and as though it’s missing a lot of details it requires – but there’s just as much chance that the length would result in some real issues and plot holes.
Freitas is the most frustrating kind of author – one who has some genuinely engaging, interesting ideas, and sporadic moments where he’s able to live up to his promise and his best ideas. But every time you’re getting into it, he takes a turn backwards; it’s as though his books are written by a strange pair of co-authors, and only one of them knows what he’s doing. I wish I could recommend them more, but as they stand, his books feel like promising rough drafts that never got turned into the polished final works they could have become.