I have made it clear across all the reviews I write that I try to do them as objectively as possible using a number of fixed category assessments to ensure a consistent approach but, in this case, I am going to dispense with that because this one is personal ... very, very personal! I absolutely hated this book but the really odd thing is that I was enjoying all the way up to the point where the author did something, a thing I was completely unable to accept. It's not like this hasn't happened before, it has - in point of fact the exact same thing happened in a book called "The Dig" by Michael Siemsen but that was his first book and I haven't read more of his since. Up until "Game Changer", Richards was one of my very favourite authors with me literally devouring every one of his books I could get my hands on. The recent remake of Battlestar Galactica series (I review the finale here) did something similar, ending the series in the worst possible way, a way that utterly destroyed the value of the series for me ... I sold my DVDs shortly after, what point is there in re-watching a series whose ending you know will only make you spit?
I have read quite a number of Richards' books and found them to be intelligently written, well researched, action packed, suspenseful with excellent grammar. He tends to write near future tech thrillers and, until "Game Changer", the only real criticism I could levy against his writing was that, like many American authors, had something of a problem with Muslims and, to a lesser extent, Russians. I overlooked those things because I could laugh those off on the basis of it being some of those peculiarly American phenomena and that other aspects of his work retained its appeal. He does one other thing I find slightly irritating, a hangover from those heady days of male dominance and general misogyny I suppose, which is to refer to his male characters by surname but to his female characters by their first. Still, it has to be said that, until this book, I would have considered Richard's to be a master of the high-tech thriller in the sense that his books though similar to each other were vastly better and more tightly written than a lot of other similar stuff by others authors.
"Game Changer" is, like most of Richards' books, set in the US although there are a number of scenes set in Israel, Russia and Korea. In my experience, Richards' has rarely shied away from violence and I was not to be disappointed ... then! I say above that Richards' books tend to be well-researched and that's true but "Game Changer" took, for me at least, a step too far. As I had come to expect of one of my favourite authors, Richards' writing and his ability to create suspenseful situations were good all the way to a point where suddenly it wasn't. I was, perhaps, ninety percent of the way through the book when Richards dropped the big one on me, one that I definitely didn't see coming and one that, for me, was such a doozy that I doubt I will ever be able read one of his books again.
Normally I would shy away from spoilers but for this review I'm afraid I can't but that shouldn't worry anyone who remains a fan since the book ends in a fashion that clearly sets it up for a sequel.
The book deals with mental manipulation, the primary character being rogue security agent Kevin Quinn as he attempts to assassinate the president of the US for an appalling act of violence (and subsequent murder) carried out against his wife. In a long, and admittedly well-told, series of adventures the agent establishes that he has been the victim of a deception, a drug that can alter memories and make someone believe something has happened which hasn't. As the story progresses and more characters are introduced, we meet the primary female character of the story, a neuroscientist by the name of Rachel Howard as well as the arch-enemy of the story, Russian/Jewish scientist Kovonov. New Israeli-developed micro-technologies are introduced specifically insect-sized drones capable of entering and bugging secret installations as well as private meetings and Richard's ratchets up the tension between Israel and the US when it turns out the Israeli's have used the drones in a number of US based operations. Towards the end of the book, the various characters true motivations and allegiances become more settled as teams are created in various locations but specifically around Quinn and Howard ("Rachel" in the book).
It is at this point Richards' did what I consider to be unforgivable as Howard, lecturing on aspects on neurotheology to their assembled team, states authoritatively, that there was absolute evidence that there can be, "No atheists in foxholes". To say I was shocked would be an understatement but I persisted to the end of the chapter hoping the author would make it clear that was simply that character's opinion and that someone else would say something to oppose it and allow me to continue enjoying the novel but that was not to be. Clearly this was a reflection of the author's opinion which shocked and surprised me because I had been such a fan of his work and found no trace of such stupidity.
I'm a voracious reader but it still took me a week or more to force myself back to the book, a measure of how furious I was with Richards for dropping that one on me, but ultimately, I forced myself to finish it seeking some kind of justification for the revelation. And I found it, in the back of the book, in the research notes the author always included at the end of his stories. In a section entitled, "Neurotheology - God on the brain" the author states (once again authoritatively) that, "a propensity toward religiosity is prewired into the human brain is accurate" and further that he had been "leaning towards atheism" but that the more he learned about physics and cosmology lead him to believe that the answers supplied by physicists and cosmologists are at least as preposterous as those claimed by proponents of an omnipotent creator. He also referred to the "fine-tuning" arguments for the universe though finally admits to us that something impossible, something beyond his ability to understand is going on. That last is an argument I particularly fail to understand; surely, if something is beyond your ability to understand, the sensible thing is to leave such things to the experts? In this respect, Richards has placed himself (apparently voluntarily) in the same camp as the fundamentalist theist who will glibly admit they don't understand how evolution could possibly work and so decide, without evidence and often in spite of it, that their god must have done it.
Richards' view that he had been leaning towards atheism is mystifying because that implies that atheism carries or is associated with some kind of philosophy which can't be true since, despite any implications the "ism" may appear to carry, atheism is simply the reverse of theism. This is supported in several ways, firstly that "theism" is based on the Greek, "with god" and that prefixing "a" of "atheism" reverses the sense of the word to mean "not with god" and if presented with a simple description of an individual being merely "theist" or "atheist" the only thing one could definitively discern is their stance with respect deity (in the theist's case, an unknown one). Think I'm wrong? Consider, the hypothetical existence of someone called Alex who you have not met but have been told is an atheist ... aside from their stance with respect to claims to the existence of deity, what else can you tell about that person? If you're honest with yourself, you already know the answer is nothing, a big, fat zero. One cannot even say that the hypothetical atheist actively believes there is no god for to do that one would require validatable evidence of non-existence. It is often said that one cannot prove a negative and this appears to be a case in point; whilst there are no currently accepted explanations in the scientific database that either request or require the action of deity, there is no specific evidence that supports the non-existence of any claimed deity.
But the essential claim Richards makes, through his characters and later confirmed in his "research" section, is that there are no atheists in foxholes. By his own admission Richards is not (and never has been) an atheist, he has merely "leant towards it", whatever that means. That means that any information he may have about what atheists understand atheism to be and what they experience under fire is, at best, second hand. I was brought up Roman Catholic, ceasing to truly care around the age of twenty and realising I was atheist in my early forties. Whilst I have never been under fire, I have been in situations where I genuinely worried that I would never recover or wake up but at no point did I ever invoke the need for deity. To my mind, that I have arrived at my position of atheism rationally, means I would literally have to lobotomise myself (to stop myself thinking rationally) to regress to a theistic point of view. Even if I did, I swear I'd become a follower of the Norse, Roman or Greek gods before I adopted the stupidity of the Abrahamic god who, even by its own propaganda (the bible), appears to be a remarkably small-minded and unpleasant fellow. In short, my own experience strongly suggests I would find no way to logically accept the existence of a god even if I were to require one in a crisis. Secondly, as I sure Richards is aware, there is an organisation of US soldiers who are atheists, who have been in foxholes under fire, and who have never felt the need to invoke deity ... perhaps somewhat ironically, I think they call themselves, "atheists in foxholes".
If the neuroscientist, Rachel Howard had had her claim balanced by the opinion of another major character I could have let it slide, simply written it off as, "just that character's opinion. Instead Richards chose to justify his character's stance in his research notes, declare the scientific explanations "preposterous" then cap it all by admitting his own inability to understand the physics involved. I mean WTF? In my view, as I suggest above, that demonstrates to me little more than a mind that is closed with little to differentiate it from the fundamentalist theist.
Clearly it has missed Richards that atheism isn't a choice, merely a label that denotes what you are as a result of your personal philosophy (in my case humanism) which implies I will be an atheist until such day as someone provides validatable evidence for the existence of the deity they claim exists. That's a stance some will, almost certainly, claim is closed-minded but it is not. My general stance is a form of objective pen-mindedness in that I will believe in anything anyone wants me to provided that it fits with currently accepted explanations and they can demonstrate good reason for me to do so. Also, I suppose this is as good a time as any to mention that I don't draw the line at Abrahamic deities ... I don't believe in faeries, leprechauns, unicorns or a host of other claimed mythical beings either.
But back to "Game Changer". I realise there will be those who think I'm overreacting but, for me, Richards's handling of this, that he had a major character make an unacceptable statement unopposed then further sought to justify it in his "research notes" is simply one step too far for me and makes me unlikely to read one of his books again.
Thanks for reading.
J. C. Rocks (Author: "The Abyssal Void War" series)