Constructed on fright

Constructed on fright

No Man’s Land
David Baldacci
Pan Macmillan
2016, pp 417, Rs 599

At a time when many US-born thriller-writers keep concocting plots where all things evil are perpetrated by a ruthless foreign agency controlled by a head of state with the first name of Vladimir, David Baldacci highlights the internal threat posed by rogue scientists working on official American agency-funded projects to create the perfect warrior.

In this book, Baldacci creates a scenario where rogue scientists who are working on a project financed by the USA’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA, (known in real life for its contribution to creating the technical foundation for what we now know as the Internet) are trying to enhance four-fold not just the psychological but physical attributes of aliens who are so keen on acquiring American citizenship that they allow themselves to be treated like guinea pigs for experiments that violate all judicial and ethical norms, and which have hazardous consequences for those experimented with.

In Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, the monstrous human created in a laboratory experiment wreaks revenge on the scientist by killing his brother and fiancee. Something similar happens in Baldacci’s No Man’s Land, with the alien Paul Rogers reacting to the experiments that warp his mind and body, by escaping from the laboratory and slaying those who have treated him like a guinea pig.

When an innocent bystander — Jacqueline Puller — sees Rogers running amok, she is killed and buried by those who do not want to run the risk of their experiment becoming public knowledge. Her family assumes that she is missing and it is left to her husband, a US Army general, to bring up the two young sons. General Puller is one of the most outstanding combat officers of his generation and is worshipped by the men he leads in one of America’s most difficult and complex conflicts, the Vietnam War. The highly-decorated officer now has to focus on bringing up the two boys.

The general’s younger son is John Puller, who grows up to become a military-CID warrant officer, and who has featured in earlier Baldacci thrillers as the tenacious investigator who bucks the system to solve crimes. In No Man’s Land, Baldacci gives us an insight into the childhood trauma that has made Puller what he is.

The book begins with Rogers being released after serving a 10-year sentence in a penitentiary that he has come to regard as a sanctuary from the rogue scientists who experimented on his mind and body. Round about the same time, John Puller, who holds the rank of chief petty officer with the military CID, is informed that the critically-ill wife of a sergeant — who had served with his father — has given a dying declaration that the general had killed Jacqueline.

The past and the present merge as John Puller tries to find out the truth, relying not just on his finely honed investigative skills, but his childhood memories of the missing mother he adored and the father he idolised and who is now being treated for dementia in a hospital. Meanwhile, Rogers is engaged in a pursuit of his own to track down and punish the female scientist who masterminded the project in which he was the unwitting guinea pig.

What follows inevitably comes across as a Manichaean conflict between the military values of courage and honour on one side, and the total darkness of the perspective of the rogue scientists whose mastermind Claire Jericho tells Rogers, “We more than quadrupled your strength metrics. You fulfilled our mission of creating a meta-biologically dominant soldier. But the Pentagon shut down the whole program. The wars in the Middle East would have been different if we’d had a division of soldiers like you. This made everything else we did to enhance you, secondary. A fighting machine who has no fear. It was the greatest attribute one could bestow. Fear makes one weak. A soldier who feels is not a real soldier.”

In Baldacci’s appropriately titled No Man’s Land, there is always the tantalising ‘if’. What if the meta-biologically dominant soldier is not just a piece of fiction but something on which the defence advanced research project agencies of more than one nation are actually working on? What if Hitler’s Herrenvolk or ‘master-race’ could be meta-biologically mass-engineered in laboratories to create an army of fighting machines that could perpetrate holocausts without fear or guilt?

In a simpler age, some 250 years ago, one of England’s most outstanding naval heroes, Horatio Nelson, would be remembered for his spontaneous childhood query of “what is fear?” Towards the end of the second decade of the 21st century, David Baldacci seems to be reiterating what the American animator Walt Kelly’s comic-strip character Pogo uttered at the height of the Vietnam War: “We have seen the enemy and he is us.”

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