By Eric P. Nichols
Deep in Alaska's Interior stand arrays of sophisticated electronic equipment trained on the sky. Scientists use them to study the atmosphere, radio waves and the aurora borealis. Some of that work is top secret, and the projects inspire wild rumors.
Eric P. Nichols, an engineer from North Pole, worked at one of those sites: the Hipas (High-power Auroral Stimulation) Observatory east of Fairbanks. That experience inspired him to write "Plasma Dreams," an intelligent, multifaceted suspense novel.
The story opens with young plasma physicist Lisa Tang visiting her former haunts at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) after a decade working at a remote Alaska lab bouncing radio waves off the aurora. In the campus coffee house, she meets a young woman who seems desperate to talk with her.
That encounter begins a series of incidents that plunge Tang, like Alice crossing through the looking glass, into a new life where the old rules no longer apply. She awakens to find herself in a hospital bed in Fairbanks.
People tell her there was a bad road accident, her colleagues are dead, and she has suffered severe brain damage. She is missing time, but the memories she does retain do not match that story.
Her surviving friends describe her as "missing a few sectors in the old hard drive."
Strange things happen. Are they coincidences? The hallucinations of a damaged mind? Or is someone out to destroy her?
"Her life was beginning to resemble some perverse fractal image of reality. Every time she peeled through a layer of what she thought was the 'real thing,' she found another duplicate of the insanity on the inside," Nichols writes. "There were few things she trusted any more, least of all, herself."
Tang finds a mysterious key. Her boss vanishes. Evidence suggests that her physics experiments may have attracted the dangerous attention of shadowy international criminals.
Soon she has reason to fear that brain damage may be the least of her worries.
For answers, she turns to Venny Toy, a blind spy who shares Tang's Chinese origins, good heart and sharp wits. Toy becomes her protector, mentor and inquisitor.
The two women embark on a journey from Fairbanks back to UCLA to untangle Tang's peculiar memories, the forces threatening her and the crucial secret discoveries of her doomed research team.
Tang and Toy dominate the story. Both are strong characters: Tang is shy, cerebral, a devout Baptist and deeply rattled by her ordeals. Toy has a mysterious and traumatic past that has left her cynical, vigilant and determined. She blusters through the world presenting a confident, exuberant and abrasive front, serving as an affectionate foil for her vulnerable but brave young friend.
The author gives them depth, showing us hints of their motivations and fears as well as their actions.
He takes a risk in writing from the point of view of Asian women, but these characters come across as believable and sympathetic.
Nichols lays out his mystery in fine form. With well-crafted scenes and brisk dialog, he draws in the reader and never lets the pace flag. His plotting is full of surprises and jolts.
He also conveys credibility. His descriptions of Alaska and California ring true. He even does a good job outlining elements of plasma physics, describing equipment and experimental methods with understanding but without intimidating general readers with too much technical detail.
His original premise is ingenious and interesting, but the latter part of the novel strays from it.
The story becomes more conventional and contrived when the characters pick up guns, pause to discuss salvation and acquire a comic sidekick.
The climax is dramatic, but perhaps too much so. It is flashy, but feels a bit like Hollywood stock footage rather than the mind-bending revelations implied by the story's start. The ending also manages to drop several prominent plot threads.
"Plasma Dreams" is full of strong writing, interesting characters and great ideas. Yet it seems that the author set up a mystery so devious that even he didn't know how to solve it without falling back on stock formulas.
It is like some of the physics experiments Tang describes: They start out bright then fizzle out, yet provide useful information and inspiration for another try.
Nichols seems to be on to something here. Fortunately for us, his Web site says he is already working on more novels. Let us hope they fulfill this book's promising start.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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