Review: The Rocket’s Red Glare by David PeakPosted: May 5, 2010
David Peak’s first novel The Rocket’s Red Glare is filed under Science Fiction on Leucrota Press’ catalog. Rightfully so, it would seem for a book that follows the journeys of several germs on the surface of a quarter. As Bill Whooping and his friend Wesley travel around the quarter trying to acquire a cure for Bill’s little brother’s strange coughing illness (termed “Whooping cough,” one of the many clever marks of Peak’s fiction here), a series of other characters and situations are uncovered. From celebrity scientist/Vice President Lazlow Sartarian’s mysterious Project X to Isaac’s strange obsession with quarter philosophy and rockets, Peak crafts a solid novel that brings together several interesting situations.
In the Prologue, readers meet this place and their President Spengler giving a speech about “the state of things,” introducing the philosophies and history of the quarter. In this short beginning, readers get an introduction to the various types of germs on this surface—Breathers, Bi-peds, Cloppies, etc.—as well as the very important Vice President Sartarian. At the end of the Prologue, there is an explosion and President Spengler goes missing, a moment of introduction that carries throughout the novel.
While the Prologue set up this interesting situation, which for the most part carried on with action and mystery throughout the novel, part of me immediately became distracted from the lack of attention to the “world” of these germs that Peak had created. On the quarter, it seems smart to have the characters to be germs with many number of legs or green skin. However, as the cars drove in miles per hour and the characters travel miles of distance, I began to lose sight of this world I was supposedly seeing up close.
While of course, fictional stories, certainly science fiction, can create and sustain worlds as odd and diverse as desired for the story, I felt the similarities between the human society I am immersed in and this germ society were too many to handle, making the situation a little difficult to develop real psychic distance.
When the writing got clever and/or weird, those moments allowed me to focus on the interesting storyline. There are parts where Peak seems to remind readers where we are, with “In God We Trust City” and the “Washington Mountains.” Added to “Coppernickus,” the ancient wisegerm, and the “1983 ruins,” the reader gets grounded into the storyline and setting. Unfortunately, these distinctions were not enough or stressed beyond being clever, so I was rarely able to see the story in the appropriate light.
Essentially, there is obvious social commentary, from the treatment of the Breathers to the power of celebrity to city vs. rural life dynamics, in this novel. Setting these issues in a different situation allows readers to enjoy the story without being distracted by that commentary. In other stories like these, ones written by George Saunders and George Orwell seem most relevant, parameters to the comparison society are set to satisfy that previous element, in a way that Peak’s novel seemed to lack.
However, Peak’s story contained an extremely intriguing set of storylines. Opening these circumstances, there is the disappearance of the President. Situated around this are stories about Sartarian’s Project X, which ends up being an attempt to take over this side of the quarter and destroy the other side, Isaac’s attempt to master rockets and quarter philosophy at a young age, and Bill and Wesley’s attempt to seek a cure for his little brother. Peak handles all three of these storylines really well, crafting them in such a way to allow them to eventually intersect. For instance, Sartarian learns of Bill’s brother’s illness, something he think can help his project, and Isaac’s discovery of the rocket plant, going after each to further his project. Similarly, Bill and Isaac first become intertwined when Bill wrecks his father’s old car near Isaac and his friend’s hangout. Peak has a way with structuring complicated plots.
For the story, Peak’s use of brushstrokes to control the story helps to pace and develop the story, both strengths of this novel. As the story goes, Peak makes each character’s story interesting and purposeful, both individually and when crossed, with well-placed moments. For example, Bill’s early attempt to go find a cure for his brother is foiled by the previously mentioned car wreck. While acting as an obstacle, this wreck is the beginning of both the intersection with Isaac, as a bystander, and Sartarian, whose interest in Bill’s brother was peaked by an article about the wreck.
Overall, the larger structure and plot development were the most impressive features of this novel for me. However, the language and attention to detail inhibited me from fully engaging in the story. I respect the interwoven social commentary with the associations between the US quarter and our society. I just wish Peak had been more careful with the connection, allowing for me to see the quarter’s problems for what they are, without immediately seeing the connection with my own society.