I put off reading Linda Nagata’s Pacific Storm for a while because I was so enamored of her far future epics that I wondered about a nearish-future thriller set in Hawai’i awaiting the arrival of a powerful hurricane. Well, once I got into the story, I couldn’t let go. Pacific Storm has that feel-it-in-yours-bones tension that pushes you toward its resolution with the literary equivalent of hurricane-force winds. It’s compelling and not to be missed.
The Hawai’i of Pacific Storm is a place on the edge: still recovering from a devastating hurricane a couple of years earlier, awaiting the arrival of a new one expected to be just as violent; largely abandoned by the federal government and on the verge of being signed off to China under a 99-year lease; torn between separatists, the results of climate change, the smothering grip of Chinese “benevolence” in rebuilding the island of O’ahu in return for accepting Chinese social surveillance.
In the midst of a broken society where people are living in dome neighborhoods amid the ruins of earlier housing, where your social rating means everything for job prospects and political fights at the national level are cutting Hawai’i loose from the union, Ava Arnett clings to her duties as a cop on Waikiki. She tries to focus on her immediate job to keep at bay a disturbing recurrent dream about her failure to save children from drowning in the last terrible hurricane and her broken marriage.
Distrusting her own judgment, she relies now on HADAFA, an AI that predicts human behavior and sends out patrols to intervene before crime is committed. The AI monitors Ava continually, but it doesn’t prevent her from making her own choice when instinct tells her something just isn’t right.
And before long, HADAFA seems to go a little crazy. A mysterious woman calling herself Lyric inserts new information into Ava’s feed through her smart eyeglasses. Lyric directs her to take action to intervene in an unimaginable conspiracy threatening a much worse disaster than even the approaching category 5 hurricane.
What sets this apart from many books is its ability to convey a pervasive tension as Ava is drawn more and more deeply into political conspiracies and a so-believable confusion about which side is real. The author starts to pull you inside Ave’s tension with a simple detail about her imaginary smoking habit:
Ava had never smoked in her life, but the mental exercise stymied the rise of real memories she did not wish to revisit and, like the action heroes in century-old movies, it let her bleed off her anxieties in a long, soft exhale of imagined smoke.Pacific Storm, Kindle edition, Location 27
The tension builds as Ava comes to doubt all the information that is thrown at her. When it comes to choosing who to believe among her boss, HADAFA, Lyric, a mysterious agent named Matt, her lover Kaden, and several others, she has to rely on her own instinct in each moment to make the right decision in life-or-death situations.
The stakes are high, a wrong or late move risks annihilation, and the anxiety she tries to exhale with her imaginary smoking only intensifies. The world around her starts shaking with the onset of the hurricane in the midst of political conspiracy. There is a brilliant moment in a critical scene when Ava faces possible drowning in a tunnel about to be inundated by storm-driven waves.
The wind’s hoarse voice worked together with a low rumbling roar of moving water reverberating from deeper in the tunnel, to cover any sound of footsteps, or strained breathing. But then the wind out of the tunnel hesitated, slowed, a held breath. Seconds ticked past—and the wind reversed, drawing atmosphere back into the tunnel with the sound of massive lungs. Wave action. It had to be. With each massive swell, a surge of water shot up through the tunnel, displacing the air ahead of it, generating the wind—and when the sea pulled back, the wind reversed.Pacific Storm, Kindle edition, Location 3073
That’s a great comparison between breath held in tension and then released in recognition of the wave action that could either kill her or give her a chance to survive. The world within Ava and world outside are drawing that same tense breath together.
While Ava constantly feels manipulated by forces she can’t control and struggles to understand, she fights for her own agency, not just to stay alive but to protect the threatened way of life of her home island and the country as a whole. Nagata handles the theme of agency in a visceral way in contrast to Williams Gibson’s more intellectual approach in his novel of that name.
In one nice detail, she stops in the midst of the action to help a homeless broken woman find her to way to safety from the approaching storm. That gives her a sense of connection and keeps her grounded for a moment in a world she still understood when everything around her is threatened. It’s a brief moment but one that makes real what Ava is fighting for.
Since Nagata is projecting a readily forseeable future, as Gibson does, there is just enough by way of raging asides to make her world feel plausible without getting preachy. She manages to let Ava, who struggles to keep her action-oriented persona steady in the midst of explosive perceptions of the mess that’s been made of her country, scream internally at the injustice of a system that has abandoned her home in a trade-off with the Chinese.
Why did we choose this future? It had been a choice. People had voted against their own long-term interests, returning to office corrupt politicians whose only goal was to sell them out, to sell their futures. Or people had failed to vote at all, too anesthetized by the grind of daily life to lift their heads and really see what was going on around them. And so the seas rose, the winds raged, fire swept the forests, once-verdant fields turned to dust, and innocent children who’d never had the chance to choose, drowned in floods or were buried in mudslides. Never ask, Who knew? We all knew.Pacific Storm, Kindle edition, Location 2739
Pacific Storm is a roaring-good action thriller rooted in the world we are making and unmaking. It forces us to look at a future we’re all too close to choosing.