Death Is Easy

Russell Madden

Freedom As If It Mattered

As If
It Mattered
Russell Madden

Guardian Project

The Guardian
Russell Madden


Russell Madden






Russell Madden



F. Paul Wilson, Ground Zero, Gauntlet Publications, 2009, 380 pages, $60.00.

“But why him? Why can’t someone else —?”

“Because there is no one else, and he knows that. So he does what needs to be done, or at least tries to. Though he hates it, though he wants no part of any of it, that is what he must do, because that is the way he is. That is the only way he knows, the only path he can see...” Ground Zero, p. 337.

Whenever the notion of furtive conspiracies arises to explain some heinous, unthinkable act — whether the Kennedy assassination, Pearl Harbor, or 9/11 — the existence of shadowy cabals secretly directing the course of society is usually dismissed with a disdainful sniff by those who prefer Occam’s Razor to paranoiac fantasies. Why complicate matters? such commentators ask. When spectacular disasters occur — especially ones that intersect with the political realm — it makes far more sense to explain them by appealing to the unwitting consequences generated by ignorance, stupidity, or insanity than by complex webs of cause-and-effect manipulated by hidden puppet masters.

It is certainly true that many manmade calamities are attributable to normal human failings and shortcomings. Yet a possibility that is rarely raised when misfortune strikes is that some people are — to put it bluntly and simply — evil. To be “evil,” however, is not merely to adhere to some Biblical prescription of human nature. The notion of “Original Sin” is literally nonsensical in the context of any valid moral system. Only actions (and the reasonably foreseeable consequences of such actions) that an individual chooses to commit can legitimately be laid at his or her feet. To be “sinful” (or “evil”) for no reason other than a person’s existence is as wrongheaded as holding an individual ethically culpable because of his skin color. Without the conceptual capacity and the opportunity to select among alternatives (i.e., the trait of “free will” or volition), morality is impossible. And no ethical judgments can or should be made unless and until a person acts on a choice he has made. (Pace Jimmy Carter, thinking about adultery is not the moral equivalent of committing adultery.)

Viewed from another angle, “evil” — or better, perhaps, “Evil” — as such does not exist. There is no Platonic Ideal that magically filters into human minds and corrupts them. A better way of understanding human “evil” is to realize that the “human” part is, in reality, the operative word. “Evil” or the immoral or the unethical is, in essence, that which is destructive to human values and the context needed to achieve those life-affirming conditions. The “good” or moral or ethical is, then, what is constructive or facilitative of the lives of individual humans (since only individuals exist; “society” [which does not exist in any literal fashion] is merely a shorthand way to describe the complex relationships among individual people]).

In the universe of F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack, however, such distinctions break down. In this fictional reality, the Otherness that seeks to transform earth and human civilization into a living hell is the embodiment of evil. In the person of Rasalom — a.k.a., the Adversary, the One —the Otherness thrives on “...the terror, the panic, the chaos, the pain, the death, the grief and misery of loss” (p. 375). It is destruction personified: anti-life, anti-happiness, anti-value, inimical to what makes life both conceivable and worth experiencing.

While our universe is indifferent — neutral; it merely “is” — to humanity’s choices and actions, Repairman Jack realizes that he is not some cliché paranoiac: a significant part of his world really is out to get him:

“Evil...Jack used to think good and evil were manmade, that the universe was indifferent[,] and good or evil solely the products of human action. No more. As far as he could see, humans were still the only source of good. But evil...evil could be human and beyond human.” (p. 324)

What could be more disheartening, depressing, discouraging than to face an implacable force that makes a mockery of the very characteristic — our moral nature — that marks us as distinctly human? The cruel randomness of Nazi concentration guards pales in comparison to the unreality that is the Otherness. Its manipulations undermine human choice, human nature, human existence. For it (or should that be “It”?), the painful, the catastrophic, the tragic are not the exception but rather the to-be-desired.

Experiencing hopelessness in the face of a “reality” that precludes the efficacy of human choice, that abrogates normal cause-and-effect, that rejoices in failure, loss, and holocaust would be a reasonable response. But abandoning hope is not in Repairman Jack’s nature.

Even though the cosmic battle waged between the Otherness and the Ally for millennia ensnarled Jack from his birth and has visited untold agony upon him and those closest to him, Jack is incapable of curling into a ball and whimpering about a fate he neither requested nor craved. Whenever a problem occurs that involves himself or those he loves or those he has agreed to help, Jack’s first reaction is to deal with it. Unlike far too many of those surrounding him, he recognizes that thought without action is impotent and action without thought is pointless.

When Weezy Myers (née Connell, a childhood friend first encountered in Jack: Secret Histories) finds herself in imminent danger (see p. 127 ff), Jack does not dither. He instantly assesses the facts available to him, makes his choices, and acts, all in the time most folks would still be trying to decide if there actually was something amiss.

In a universe whose facade of normality is dangerously close to shredding from the Otherness’s unnatural assaults, Jack is just as relentlessly realistic, that is, committed to observing, identifying, and acting in accordance with that reality he desperately seeks to save and sustain. Despite the fantastical enemies and powers that threaten to destroy him, Jack is determined to see things as they are, that is, to be rational even while the irrational that is the Otherness oozes implacably toward him. As Jack says, “It’s not pleasant, but it’s the way it is.” (p. 134)

As with many of the Repairman Jack novels, the title Ground Zero carries multiple levels of meaning. On the surface, of course, Ground Zero refers to the site of the destroyed World Trade Center. Indeed, what “really” happened there so many years ago forms the crux of the mystery Jack and his allies must unravel before a new threat manages to tip the scales once and for all into the camp of the Otherness.

More generally, “ground zero” refers to a “starting point or base for some activity.” (Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd Edition.) The yet-to-be-completed Opus Omega — the network of human-sacrifice pillars established by the Septimus Order and the Dormentalists and buried at nexuses of Otherness influence (see my review of Crisscross, here) — is intended to be “ground zero” for the full passage of the Otherness into the realm of humanity.

Within that “ground zero” is yet another starting point: the “Null Site” where the Opus Omega must originate...a site that intersects with another “ground zero” that is eventually revealed in the story to devastating effect. The “Orsa pillar” that is located at these “ground zeroes” is, not surprisingly, itself a potential “ground zero,” part of an Otherness contingency plan designed to assault our reality on a number of fronts. The peril that is set to emerge from the Orsa will establish another “ground zero” aimed at a figurative and fundamental pillar of humanity’s defense.

To borrow from another Wilson title, “wheels within wheels.”

Indeed, Ground Zero resonates with other titles in this series. Not only is Ground Zero, well, grounded in uncovering and nullifying Conspiracies, it is replete with examples of Gateways that Crisscross the world, the pages of the mystical Compendium of Srem, and the very flesh of the Lady who has shadowed Repairman Jack his entire life.

And, of course, Jack himself is a “ground zero,” a base for the rescue of our rational universe; an intersection between “good violence and bad” (see my Crisscross review), between control and chaos, between freedom and tyranny, between self-ownership and slavery, between genetic determinism and choice (see my review of Bloodline, here), between victimhood and personal responsibility, between death and life.

In Ground Zero, we again encounter the Kickers (see Bloodline) as they expand their unwitting alliance with Rasalom and factor into a crucial component of the One’s machinations. Dawn Pickering (see my review of By the Sword, here) makes a passing appearance, leaving us yet again to wonder what (if any) role her unborn child will play in the coming epic struggle. Many of the characters Jack met in Secret Histories also emerge in Ground Zero as major figures in the war to come.

After the somewhat disappointing By the Sword, Ground Zero stands as one of the strongest tales in the Repairman Jack series. Here the story focuses squarely (and properly) on Jack and what he does best: solving problems. Jack is a prime mover, his humor and courage and insights an inspiration to his friends and a vexation to his enemies. The plot roars along in overdrive, daring the reader to hang on for dear life as Jack plunges into the midst of dangers even he does not fully comprehend or understand.

Ground Zero reveals and explains even more layers of the Otherness and its plans. With only two more Repairman Jack novels remaining before the “heavily revised” (p. 380) Nightworld is published, we can expect that satisfying trend to continue. In Ground Zero, Wilson has the throttle wide open as he hurtles Jack towards his final objective. And as wonderful as an ultimate destination can be, it’s good to remember that enjoying the journey itself can be even more important. In Ground Zero, Wilson hits the bullseye dead-on.

A small note:

Readers should be aware that there is a potentially confusing point-of-view issue at the beginning of the book in moving from the section labeled “Monday, 1” to “Monday, 2.”

The first section focuses on Diana, an Oculus. (See my review of Harbingers, here). The second section continues with “she” but with no specific change in referent for the pronoun. This is, however, a different woman than Diana. In reading it, though, I simply assumed it was Diana later in the same day. After all, section 1 has Diana thinking that “she chatted online all the time,” and that, “She had to find Jack,” and that “she had to go to New York.” Section 2 begins with the unnamed “she” typing on a computer in a cyber cafe.

Even if Wilson does not want to reveal the identity of the second woman right away, more differentiation between the two characters would help. While a closer reading of the two sections might have alerted me to the change, I did not realize my error until later in the book.

(For a computer-generated, audio version of this review, go here.)

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