It’s the end of the world as he knows it, and he feels smug.
Richtel’s (The Cloud, 2013, etc.) thriller concerns the plight of one Jeremy Stillwater, a young computer genius whose conflict-predicting software lands him in the center of a sinister plot to detonate a nuclear device in San Francisco…an event that, according to his miraculous machine, will precipitate apocalyptic all-out nuclear war. The narrative’s ticking clock/countdown structure—the program indicates the catastrophe will occur in a matter of days—effectively maintains tension as Stillwater evades assassins, untangles the motivations of business partners and government agents, attempts to uncover the secret religious organization behind the planned attack, and, most crucially, struggles to overcome his own toxic personality and feeble interpersonal skills to rise to the occasion and save the world. This emphasis on Stillwater’s personal growth distinguishes this otherwise by-the-numbers techno-thriller, in ways both intriguing and off-putting. Stillwater is an extremely unpleasant protagonist, a bitter, superior know-it-all with an unerring instinct for going for the jugular in just about any human interaction. As the events unfold almost exclusively from his point of view, the reader occasionally may wish for the world to blow up already, just to be rid of the overbearing jerk. Ultimately, though, Richtel’s characterization pays off; Stillwater is more interesting than the standard-issue bland adventure hero, and his gradual appreciation of other people achieves an authentic poignancy by the story’s conclusion. While details of the plot (a serviceable rehash of familiar suspense tropes) may fade, Stillwater remains a memorable hero.
A solid if unremarkable technological thriller noteworthy for its strangely unlikable—and compellingly strange—protagonist.