06 December 2014

FWS Book Review: The Chimera Vector: The Fifth Column by Nathan M. Farrugia

There are novels that fit within the genre of military science fiction like a Lego piece, and then there are others that take the familiar themes of the genre and mix it with a variety of other themes from other genres. Take this novel, The Chimera Vector, it mixes an contemporary setting, counter-terrorism operations, elements of military sci-fi, and the shadowy world of espionage. This is the first novel within the techno-thriller series Chimera Vector: The Fifth Column by Nathan M. Farrugia that is now into its fourth book. This 2012 novel was given to FWS by the Australian publisher Momentum for the purpose of this review.  

The Setting of The Chimera Vector
After reading this book, I recalled a quote from The Matrix that seemed to apply to the setting "(th)is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth". The idea of an group operating in the shadows, controlling world events and global prospective on these events plays heavily in the current-world setting of The Chimera Vector.
The Fifth Column and Akhana are fighting behind the scenes to control the destiny of human society as we all drone onwards to work and Starbucks. This is all because Chimera Vector is set in our current world with the current problems, which makes the setting relatable. 

The Spoiler-Free Review of The Chimera Vector
In the pages of this “techno-thriller” novel, first time author Nathan M. Farrugia proves himself worthy of being a new voice in the genre of military thriller. Throughout my month-long read of The Chimera Vector, I was reminded of Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse while reading some of the trials of Sophia and how she thinks. Mr. Farrugia also proves himself in taking  often used plot points of shadow government, genetically tailor agents, and badass female agents with a fresh  prospective and engaging the reader. This was not just applied to Sophia as a ronin agent, split from The Fifth Column, but also with characters like Denton and Damien. All of these characters seemed to more than just empty shoes, and well written, making them more than just Starfleet Red Shirts. 
I especially liked they more realistic way that Mr. Farrugia approached the character of Sophia. She is not some warrior-Valkyrie-battle-princess-badass-sexy-bitch that is Black Widow or Max from Dark Angel; Sophia gets shot, cries, makes bad decisions, and eats. She also gets captured several times in the novel. Overall, the novel is expertly written with Mr. Farrugia drawing from his military experience leading to some detailed scenes that cover the range from the bloody results for gunshot wounds to simply European urban environments. His dialog was also worth noting, with lines worthy of my highlighter and a good laugh. While the majority of the novel is very good-to-excellent, it is not all sunshine and kitties. The overall novel lacks gravity to anchor down the events, especially later, when the plot thickens and the reason for the title is revealed. While Mr. Farrugia builds a foundation that is compelling and mostly well done, there is not enough of it to support the weight of the later story arch due to beginning. 
From those beginning pages, Sophia and her team are disavowed from the Fifth Column, and forcing her and her team to run for their lives as they search for answers. This is a solid military/spy thriller plot device, and it used effective in The Chimera Vector, but it is a little hallow. If we take 1996’s Mission Impossible as an example, Tom Cruise had about 20-25 minutes as an IMF agent, and much of the film is devoted to his survival and salvation as a disavowed agent. Sophia’s journey is similar, but like Mission Impossible, she is barely in the service of the Fifth Column long enough to support all of the elements in the later pages. I would have loved to see The Chimera Vector open with Sophia on more of several missions. This would have also helped the central concept of the shadow Fifth Column government and the Akhana resistance group. Another point, and it is a small one, is that too often Mr. Farrugia uses the proper full name of the firearm being used. While I love the fact that he uses proper weapons for the tactical setting, he could have used other proper noun for guns likes the P99. Theses few rough points of the novel pale in comparison to the rock-solid core, and author Nathan Farrugia has a bright future in any writing path he choices. 

The Hardware of The Chimera Vector
One of the standouts of The Chimera Vector is the firearms. Seriously. Mr. Farrugia puts real-world weaponry into the hands of his characters, and it says a great deal about the level of thought and detail. For example, Sophia's favorite weapon is the P99, but she will use a number of real-world weaponry throughout the novel. In the Chimera Vector, the weapons are stars along side the character. In the first few pages, there is a damn near pornographic scene involving an Barrett .50 sniper rifles. This weapons are one of my favorite elements and really adds some nice atmosphere in the novel. 

The Interview with author Nathan M. Farrugia
1. What was the genesis behind of The Chimera Vector, and world that the book lives itself, and Sophia?

It started when I was a teenager. I had this idea of two operatives, Damien and Jay, infiltrating a covert facility. It was just a really simple story, but as I grew older, went through the army and studied film and also writing, that story moved through ten evolutions over ten years. In its finished form, it became The Chimera Vector. Damien and Jay are still in the story but they’re secondary main characters and they don’t infiltrate the facility, because they’re already inside!

2. What impact does your military service have on your writing and how you examine other fictional military works (ie video games, books, movies)

There are pros and cons here. The pros: it helps my own writing and helps me think like my characters (who are far better trained than I am by a mile!) and challenges me to avoid common Hollywood tropes and actually think about how they would really resolve things. Often that can be more interesting and more entertaining. But the ultimate objective is that it will entertain.

The cons: it completely ruins my ability to enjoy an action movie or a first-person shooter game or a thriller novel. You need a huge suspension of disbelief to be able to re-engage with entertainment again otherwise you’ll laugh every time soldiers clear a room in Call of Duty, or drive yourself crazy trying to remember the last time you saw a movie where someone actually held a pistol properly. To me these are really basic things but they’re often overlooked because 99% of the audience will also overlook them, therefore they don’t matter. And if you’re unlucky enough to not be one of those 99%, then there’s only one thing you can do: let it go and enjoy things for what they are. It does mean you’ll enjoy things a lot less, but it also means you can appreciate the stories that do put the effort in even more.

3.  What are your favorite fictional military works across all types of media?

Film: Probably cheating since these are based on novels and manga, but recently I really enjoyed Ender’s Game and Edge of Tomorrow. Not everyone liked these movies but they worked perfectly for me.

TV: I’m not ashamed to admit Stargate SG-1! I also enjoyed Battlestar Galactica, even though I felt it lost direction in the final season.

Games: Deus Ex (the original), Half-Life 2 — both of these games have a heavy science angle too. They are to this day my favorite games of all time and I will forcibly recommend them to anyone. 

Books: Gridlinked by Neal Asher (first in a series), which is pretty much the far future version of my series. And Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (also the first in a series).

4. Why did you decide to have your main character be female and what impact does having an female character have on the writer and the story itself. Also, why was she named Sophia?

It more or less happened without my realizing it. I had a main character and hey, she was female. I named her Sophia, which is Greek for wisdom. I wasn’t sure if having a female protagonist would change anything for me as a writer or for anyone as a reader, but once I started writing her it really didn’t make a difference.

I think it’s great that more writers consciously try to push for a balance of genders in their stories, which usually means introducing more female characters than they might’ve otherwise. It’s hard for a lot of writers and I think it might be because they’re looking to the real world as a genuine example of gender balance, but the problem is the real world is grossly imbalanced.

This leaves many writers in a weird place where they have to actually imagine what “normal” should be. Some writers can do this quite naturally without any problem. But others tend to overthink it and try to create a “strong female character”, except they really don’t know what that is. So they often end up transferring just a few attributes from their male protagonists (strong! tough as nails! can do roundhouse kicks!) and applying them to their female protagonists. But they’re transferring all the dumb stuff instead of the important things, so they end up with an over-masculinized female character as some sort of awkward placeholder.

I find the best way is just to not think about what gender Sophia is. Because 99.9% of the time it’s irrelevant. When she’s solving a puzzle or escaping a pursuer, I don’t constantly think, ‘Hey, she is a woman’ every ten seconds, just as I don’t think ‘Hey, he is a man’ every ten seconds. If I did that, it would get in the way of my writing.

5.One of the details that I enjoyed from The Chimera Vector was how specific you were about the weapons. For example, Sofia uses an Walther P99,and an FN P90, along with that scene with soldiers carrying M4 carbines that the significant of that. This really sets your novels apart. Why did you decide to do this and how do you go about choosing a weapon for your characters?

It’s funny you should mention this because it’s something that really divides my readers. Half of them relish the specifics of each weapon and don’t like the vague and generic terms like “pistol” or “rifle”. The other half don’t like the specifics. So I’m always trying to keep the specifics without the language getting in the way of the reader. It’s a delicate balance.

In The Chimera Vector, almost everyone has access to some resources and weapons so there’s quite a bit of selection available to them. I went for some different weapons that aren’t usually seen, such as the FN P90. Although having said that, the P90 isn't a good example because it’s actually become quite popular. I even remember seeing it in Stargate SG-1. But the reason I chose it was because it has an unusual design and look, and it’s actually similar in a lot of ways to the rifle I was trained with in the Australian Army: the Steyr Aug. The Steyr is another unusual weapon and it’s not used often in film or literature. The Governor wielded the Steyr Aug in The Walking Dead.

For the most part, Sophia and her friends are operatives so their primary firearm is the pistol. It’s more easily concealable, but of course the range is limited and the stopping power isn’t as great as a rifle, and you don’t have as many rounds on hand. I always try to remember that if Sophia needs more than a couple of magazines then she’s in big trouble. But again, big trouble is usually what happens in these books!

In later books, resources grow more limited and the good guys are using whatever they can scavenge or steal.

6. Your book extensively deals with secret societies that hold a great power, and most of the world are oblivious of their power in their daily lives. What gave rise to this and explain why you chose the term "the Fifth Column" and "Akhana". 

I actually purposefully avoided secret societies for two reasons: they’re done to death and a few of them peaked with Dan Brown, and they’re a common trope in conspiracy fiction. The Fifth Column is not quite a one world secret government, but they are fairly tightly woven into the military industrial complex of most countries. They’re not as all-seeing and all-encompassing as many ruling governments in science fiction military settings, but they certainly want to be. The key distinction between most approaches to this and The Fifth Column series is that there is no secret bloodline or initiation into a cult or alien race. Those that are in control are genetic psychopaths, they’re just as real as the rest of us.

The Fifth Column is usually used to describe a group of people who undermine a larger group and it can be overt or clandestine. Which in a very twisted sense is what happens in these books, except instead of a small uprising of resistance fighters from the bottom of the chain, it’s a small selection of psychopaths at the top.

The Akhana on the other hand is a resistance of Fifth Column scientists and soldiers who defected. The meaning behind the word is Gnostic and Akhana is the female Aeon, which in one interpretation translates to “truth”.

7. The concept of psychopath in the novel was an intriguing one and something unique. I address in my own blogpost about super-soldiers. What inspirited this idea? 

A decade ago, I was reading about a small team of psychiatrists who worked in secret under Nazi and then Soviet occupation. They were trying to understand evil from a scientific standpoint and they found that there was a certain percentage of people who were born without a conscience and could not experience a wider range of emotions such as empathy or guilt. Some are easy to spot and usually end up in jail, while others are smooth operators and go their entire lives undetected. The team of psychiatrists witnessed these sorts of people finding their way into influential positions and wreaking havoc.

This team was decades ahead of any research in the West and even today we’re still playing catch up. Most people still believe a psychopath is a bloodthirsty serial killer or a Hannibal Lecter, which makes it easier for the real psychopaths to move through society undetected, leaving in their wake a trail of devastation through their various careers where they’ve manipulated their way to the top, and their personal relationships, where they’ve manipulated their partners into believing they’re to blame for everything the psychopath has done.

In the Fifth Column series, psychopaths are typically working in the higher echelons of the Fifth Column itself, while the operatives and super-soldiers are humans with a conscience, programmed to perform certain deniable operations. You can certainly have psychopaths as operatives. But with the exception of one or two types, psychopaths tend to prefer to manipulate their way into a higher, more managerial position where they can fulfill their primal desires of power and control by manipulating operatives to do the menial work for them. Working in an area where they can continually deceive people would give the psychopath a great deal of satisfaction, something they almost seem to feed off. Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me if the vampire myth is based on ancient knowledge of the psychopath.

8. What happened to the planned graphic novel? Will we ever see it or another project like it?

I hope so, it’s something I really want to do. It was my second Kickstarter project, which only raised half the needed funds back in 2011. Admittedly, I tried to do this before my first book was even released, so there wasn’t an existing readership there to help support it. I learned the hard way not to put the cart before the horse! I could probably try crowdfunding the graphic novel today and there’s a good chance it would be successful. But  creating a graphic novel is an extraordinary amount of work and not something I want to rush into.

If you want it to be completed in less than 2 years then you need multiple artists involved rather than just one. My plan was to have six artists involved, which raises the problem of different styles and consistency — do you purposely divide the artists into chapters with distinct styles or do the artists try to conform to one style?

I haven’t abandoned the graphic novel idea, it’s a big undertaking but I know it’s something that I will do in the near future. And when I do, I’ll probably fund it myself.

9. The concepts and central story elements seem to be a good fit for a television series...as anyone approached you about an Fifth Column show?

I’ve only had film offers so far, but I agree that it works much better for television. The budget might be a problem, but it would be nothing compared to the costs of something Game of Thrones. Extensive CGI can rack up costs very quickly, which is why you don’t see dragons in that series very often. For that reason, I’m glad The Fifth Column series is thriller with science fiction elements rather than full-blown science fiction or fantasy. Which gives the budget some room to breathe.

I’d rather see that extra budget go into the central action scenes that need it and also the combat choreography, which is usually underwhelming in Western television and cinema. The Matrix trilogy set that bar much higher, but over the past decade only a handful of movies really rose that challenge, like Scott Pilgrim vs The World.

10.Given some of the elements in this novel, which espionage agent is Sophia similar to? Jack Bauer? James Bond? Jason Bourne? Sydney Bristow?

Hmm, that’s a tricky question!

Jason Bourne would be the closest match, given that he is far more strategic and is the closest I’ve seen to an operative as defined in The Fifth Column series: someone who is trained as a soldier to a special forces level and also as an intelligence officer to an equally high level. Bourne begins as a diplomat but is later recruited and trained to become a part of a death squad, Medusa. Essentially, this is where he receives his standard military and special forces training combined. Later he joins a black ops element of the CIA, Treadstone, where he receives his intelligence training.

Sophia receives her training in the same order as Bourne. She receives her military training as a teenager and reaches a special forces level before adulthood. As an adult, she receives her intelligence training and works as a deniable operative for the Fifth Column for a number of years before things start to go awry.

11. What does the future hold for your Fifth Column Series? And are you exploring other military science fiction/techno-thriller book concepts?

I’m working on a new episodic series at the moment that includes both new and old characters. New readers won’t need to know anything about the previous series but existing readers will be able to continue the journey with their favorite characters, including Sophia and Denton.

12. While Sophia is clearly the main character, however, I gravitated towards Denton...why is that?

Denton is Sophia’s arch-nemesis and he’s also a psychopath. But he’s a very entertaining one. It’s not easy to create a person without a conscience, empathy or regret, and still be relatable and likable to us. But that’s where Denton flourishes. And it was actually by accident that so many people hated and loved him at the same time. He’s not as uptight or serious as most characters, his plans and schemes are grand and clever, he bakes cupcakes, and he says all the things no one else could say. You might argue that Jay does this too as he’s a bit of a joker, but Jay is restricted to being a good guy whereas Denton can dance across that line. Denton shifts from order and repression in the first book to chaos and insurgency in the later books — and he loves it. Sophia finds herself working alongside him as often as against him. So I think it’s the reluctant allegiance that wins us over too.

By the way, your novel forced me to eat a cupcake!

Blame Denton, not me!

Be sure to pick the entire Fifth Column series on Amazon.com!

Next Time on FWS...
Going on patrol is one of the core duties of soldiers since the dawn of organized combat, and it continues today, and will likely be something future soldiers do as well...or is it? In the next installment of FWS, we will be examining patrolling and its role in the modern military and military science fiction. Join as we get our boots dirty!

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  1. Cool book might read it some day ( probably soon) speaking of books did u finish the concept art of the dragoon mech for your book yet. Cus I would like to see it . And how's the book going.

  2. This book series is rather cool and the author is cool as well. Yes, the Dragoon APS and the cover art for the novel are finished and done by the talent of Mr. Derek Restivo. I am were pleased, and it should be up on FWS quite soon. The book, and thanks for asking, will be out very soon, and Forker Media is planning an all-out-assault for the rollout. I am, at the moment, writing the sequel and another book about a black operations far-future special forces team. Got the idea while reading "the Ghost Brigades".