My extra blog for this week looks at Dan Brown’s 2001 novel, Deception Point, one of his few non-Robert Langdon tales. Full spoilers for Deception Point ahead…
Deception Point is about a government intelligence analyst called Rachel Sexton who is summoned by the President to help on a NASA discovery of enormous magnitude. We learn that NASA has found a meteorite containing extraterrestrial fossils, and Rachel is part of a team sent to the Arctic to verify the discovery. When the team finds an anomaly, eventually learning that the discovery is one massive fake, they quickly become the targets of a conspiracy.
The plot is great fun. Being a conspiracy fiction writer myself, these are the sorts of stories I’m drawn to. It’s packed with the usual conspiracy tropes – the protagonists’ steady unearthing of the truth, mysterious deaths (and some nasty ones too, such as death-by-ice-forced-down-the-throat!), exciting attacks by the conspirators’ henchmen, mysterious figures pulling the strings, red herrings and twists.
The story is told from the POV of many characters, often jumping in and out of different characters’ heads mid-scene. Brown doesn’t ‘head-hop’, because line breaks are used to indicate when he is changing perspective, but I’ve heard that doing this mid-scene is generally ill-advised because it breaks up the action. And doing this multiple times mid-scene is even worse because it distances the reader from the action and the characters.
Deception Point makes me doubt these rules. At no point do the perspective shifts ruin the action. Rather, they serve the plot well because they speed things up. If we were forced to stay in one character’s head during all the action scenes, they’d take twice as long to tell. Furthermore, they would probably be inexplicable in this kind of story, which has a large ensemble of characters and a lot of complicated stuff going on.
The action scenes are well written and the twists well-executed, particularly the revelation of William Pickering as the conspiracy’s mastermind. It’s plot-driven through and through, but that’s not to say its characters are not interesting. Rachel is well-realised, as is Margorie Tench, Pickering and the ill-fated Norah Mangor. Admittedly I found Michael Tolland pretty forgettable and dull, and was a little frustrated that so much of the story was told from his POV, but it didn’t detract from the plot.
I should at this point mention Deception Point’s substantive subplot, which is about Rachel’s father, Senator Sedgwick Sexton, the presidential candidate. Much of this story focuses on Gabrielle Ashe, his aide, who is blackmailed by Margorie Tench over her affair with him. Eventually she learns that Sexton is illegally accepting bribes from a number of companies supporting his election. For a while, this runs alongside the main plot, and I wasn’t sure exactly what bearing it was going to have on the NASA/Rachel story. However, as soon as Gabrielle herself starts uncovering NASA’s lies, and Rachel faxes documents revealing the truth to her father, the two stories intertwine.
It’s the moment when Sexton receives the fax that he comes to the fore as probably the book’s most interesting character. His desperation for power and lack of regard for his daughter’s life, which make him so astonishing in the last quarter of the book, also make for an interesting moral conundrum. He’s more concerned about using the documents to prove NASA and potentially the President are frauds than getting help for Rachel. Yet at that point I found myself glad of his selfishness, because I wanted the truth to come out. I liked the way Brown developed this. And the final twist – where Sexton gets what he deserves in front of a congregation of reporters – is a crowd-pleaser, if a tad obvious.
But Deception Point is not without its flaws. The book is overlong. The second half is much better than the first, and the big reveal that NASA has discovered extraterrestrial life – which every reader is expecting – takes far, far too long. The team’s slow unearthing of the truth about the meteorite is too slow; it’s bogged down in science, and it felt like there was endless back and forth on whether the meteorite had natural or manmade features.
But the science and what us Star Trek fans like to call ‘technobabble’ are probably the book’s biggest problems. There is a lot of tech speak between the characters and in the descriptions. In the acknowledgements at the beginning of the book, we see that Dan Brown has done his research. But there are sections where it’s like he’s showing off what he’s learned about glaciology and oceanography by filling the text with long, unnecessary description. This alienated me a little, being a reader who knows absolutely zilch about any of it.
I noticed it most during the final action scenes on board Michael Tolland’s ship, the Goya. The descriptions of what was happening were so technical that they were almost inexplicable. Therefore, at a time when I was supposed to be on the edge of my seat in suspense, I found my attention wandering. If Brown had simplified the description and cut back on all the science and tech – having literally just enough to make the story believable – Deception Point might’ve been a hundred pages shorter.