by Matthew Glass
400 pp., $24
Two categories of readers may be tempted early in the going to lay aside--or, if of a more volatile temperament, throw across the room--Matthew Glass's first novel. But bailing out could be a mistake.
The first group are those who don't believe global warming exists, or if it does, that human behavior neither has caused it nor can reduce its effects. The basic premise of Ultimatum is that Al Gore's warnings are way too optimistic. By 2032, as Arizona senator Joe Benton prepares to take office as president, the effects of climate change are increasing exponentially, facing the United States and the world with imminent catastrophe if a workable agreement can't be reached for planet-wide reduction of carbon emissions.
That these cataclysmic effects are real and caused by human activity is regarded as settled. But even skeptics on global warming may find the premise of the novel worthy of exploration: If such a calamity were to occur, how would it be handled politically and practically?
The second group of potential book-hurlers are those who expect even blockbuster thrillers to exhibit some measure of literary style. Fine prose, deep characterization, and sparkling dialogue are considered superfluous by too many readers, writers, and even reviewers of the contemporary thriller. The late Michael Crichton's technological melodramas were sometimes unfairly criticized for undistinguished style. But next to Glass, Crichton was a veritable F. Scott Fitzgerald. The most vivid character in the early pages of Ultimatum is Benton's outspoken secretary of state Larry Olsen, not because he emerges as a three-dimensional personality but because his role in the story is to offer contrarian advice.
Benton himself is the flattest cardboard--his lackluster acceptance speech demands that we take his enormous charisma on faith--and the reader's identification with him by the end of the book is based more on the nature and seriousness of his problems than any real human connection. Glass stakes all on the nonfictional hook and the exploration of the issues involved.
Surprisingly, that was enough for me. By around page 100, this novel had me hooked. Do the writing and dialogue really get sharper as the book goes along, or does it merely seem so because the plot has become so engaging?
In what could be termed a futuristic diplomatic thriller, or presidential procedural, the country and the world are largely unchanged in 20-plus years, aside from the central situation. More women occupy key positions; Benton's vice president is female, as was one of his White House predecessors. There was another 9/11 attack in 2015. The two Koreas are apparently united, but an independent Taiwan continues to rankle mainland China. Great Britain is still America's closest ally.
Benton has won election in a landslide, unpopular incumbent Mike Gartner having been relegated to one term as a result of unilateralism, unpopular military ventures, and perceived favoring of the rich. Relocation (with a capital R) is already a major political issue, one of the four key aspects of Benton's New Foundation, along with health, education, and jobs. There have been extreme floods on the Gulf Coast, and Benton notes, "Every country with a coastline accepts that millions of people are going to have to be moved."
But as Benton prepares to take office and introduce his ambitious program of domestic reforms, Gartner drops a bombshell in a secret meeting with his successor: New scientific models conclusively show things are even worse than believed. A whole series of Kyoto accords have given lip service to solving the problem of carbon emissions but have been almost universally ignored in practice. The question facing the Benton administration: Should they go ahead with another Kyoto charade or try to reach agreement one-on-one with the other major world power, the still nominally Communist China?
Ultimatum has its rewards for political and international relations wonks of all ideological stripes. The story unfolds in the corridors of power, proceeding from one meeting to another, usually in the United States, sometimes in China. Issues are laid out and explored from all angles. Notably missing are "common folk" interludes, contrived cinematic action set-pieces, and tangential personal complications. If some regret this, others will be glad that Glass sticks to the issues at hand. Even Benton's family exchanges--his politically obsessed daughter is one of the more engaging characters--bear on the central problem. His generational clashes with his son are neither resolved nor even revisited.
The main focus is how the United States can reach an agreement to save the world with China, not an easy task. A China analyst tells Benton, "There is no Chinese government, there's only the party. There is no party, there are only factions. Sometimes there aren't even factions, but only individuals." A Chinese-American State Department employee notes that while Benton and other presidents, in addressing major international issues, "think of something outside your own narrow partisan agenda," Chinese leaders consider only what will keep them in power, and consider their own situations more important than the good of their people.
America's allies object to Benton's decision to deal directly with the Chinese, and a principal issue is when, if ever, unilateralism is an appropriate stance for a president of the United States, or for any world leader. The liberal Benton is taken aback when his own daughter compares him to George W. Bush.
There are occasional humorous touches, though precious few. When the British prime minister takes a private walk around Camp David with the new president, it is the PM who suggests the route: He's been there several times before, and Benton is there for the first time. When the president decides late in the evening that he wants to go to church the next day, his wife points out what organizational problems he's created for some poor Secret Service supervisor and advises him to decide earlier next time.
All that is publicly revealed about first-time novelist Matthew Glass is that he is an Englishman writing under a pseudonym. Like British actors who can channel a note-perfect American accent, many British novelists now write a persuasive American idiom. The only clues I could find to Glass's nationality were his use of "meant to" where an American would say "supposed to," and a very odd attempt at a baseball metaphor: "Do you want to get out in the park, or would you rather stay in the dugout?"
There are other lapses in editing and proofreading. In addition to the surname Benton, we have two characters (one major, one minor) plus a candidate for appointment mentioned in passing with the forename Ben. And how did a sentence like "He almost physically threw up" escape the blue pencil? Ultimatum would make a good feature film, or better yet a TV miniseries, where skilled actors and a screenwriter capable of sharp dialogue could breathe life into these somewhat flat characters. But until that happens, readers willing to look past ideological and literary standards will find this print version surprisingly rewarding.
Jon L. Breen is the author, most recently, of Probable Claus.