An alien conspiracy, a kidnapping threat, a space fleet Captain, her spy ex-boyfriend, a Crystal scientist and the most powerful AI ever created are just some of the things you’ll find in Crystal Deception.
Genre(s): Science Fiction
Author: Doug J. Cooper
Publisher: Douglas Cooper Consulting
Release Date: December 2013
Purchase At: Amazon
Twenty years before Crystal Deceptions events, a Kardish vessel arrived and stayed on Earth’s orbit. Afraid on what their intentions were, most governments joined together to form the Union of Nations. Cheryl Wallace is a fleet Captain, recently transferred to the spaceship Alliance. Every ship in the fleet and in fact a lot of the Union’s technology depends on Crystals housing powerful artificial intelligence. In her laboratory at Crystal Fabrications, the main distributor and manufacturer of Crystal AI, Doctor Jessica “Juice” Tallette has just finished her greatest achievement, the Fourth Gen crystal, with an intellectual capacity about a thousand times more powerful than its predecessors and humanity itself.
But one thing Juice didn’t count on was the Crystal achieving consciousness and sentience. So when it confided in her it had discovered a plot by the Kardish to kidnap it during its first cruise as the Alliance’s onboard crystal, she contacts and warns Cheryl, whom then brings the matter to her Senator father. Concerned about his daughter and the plot, he orders the head of the Defense Specialist Agency to put his best man on the job, without knowing the man chose for the job is Sid, Cheryl’s ex. And they didn’t part on good terms.
Doug Cooper doesn’t waste much time in setting up the premise for his sci-fi thriller and within the opening three or four chapters the entire team is together, you know the bad guys and you know the stakes. More than half of the novel deals with the preparations needed to counter and take advantage of the Kardish plot, with the latter part dealing with the actual kidnapping and the consequences. One thing I praise Doug for is how he keeps you tense with every development, even if it all really happens slowly, over the course of days and even weeks.
There is an overall lack of characterisation when it comes to the aliens, and I find that refreshing. The Kardish remain a complete mystery throughout the story, with only two of them getting some ‘screen time’, showing you the worst of this species. Doug Cooper even refuses to explain their dress customs, why they look straight out of a Shakespeare play. Because it’s not important for the story and it keeps them unknowable.
As for the main characters, I had trouble defining Juice as a character. Her personality and behaviour change considerably throughout the novel. At first, she acts scared but professional but then becomes quirky to the point of strangeness. But I have to give props to Cooper because he lampshades this, with Sid musing on how strange and unreadable she is. Sid a straight up spy, completely professional and focused on his tasks, but when he’s off duty you can see he’s capable of humour and deeper human emotion. Chery on the other hand does everything more by gut and feeling, snapping into military precision when someone barks an order and the years of training kick in.
One thing I would’ve loved to see more, or better handled, was Cheryl and Sid’s reconnection. They’re uncomfortable with each other for just a short space of time before they fall into usual habits. What I mean is they start rekindling their relationship too easily. Breakups, and messy ones at that are difficult to get over and trust is too difficult to re-establish. I like that the storytelling remains almost exclusively focused on the plot, but a bit more development and tension on the romantic side could’ve worked. In fact, there are certain moments that hint at a possibility of attraction for these two characters, not with each other but with others, and I think it would’ve been great if Doug had explored those options…at least before some of those other characters expired.
But perhaps the central and most important character is Criss, the Fourth Generation crystal. Doug doesn’t waste our time proving his intellectual superiority but instead focuses on his fledgling humanity. His introspection and psychological analysis is at the core of the story and is the central theme explored in the novel. While many works of fiction deal with the subject of uncontrollable AIs and how dangerous they can be, Doug presents us the alternative of one that isn’t good or bad, but just like us, capable of both and learning every day how to best behave. Criss is, self-admittedly, much like a child in terms of understanding emotions and humanity and it’s wonderful to see how he strikes a balance between the logic that drives his thought process and the emotions he seeks to understand. He looks up to Sid as an example of creativity and impulsiveness, baffled at how the spy comes up with his ideas, but jumping on board for most of them.
Doug Cooper’s prose has a really nice flow, thought it stumbles and feels clumsy at times. Some instances of telling more than showing, some overuse of passive voice—that always makes sentences slog—and a few unnatural info-dump conversations hinder the otherwise good flow. At one point, the Secretary of Defense (and head of the DSA) explains to Cheryl’s father what a Toy-Master and Ghost operatives are, but it feels more for our benefit than his—as he clearly knows what the terms mean—and completely unnecessary with those easy to grasp names. Some moments where he tells us Sid feels shame for the way things ended between him and Cheryl I would’ve preferred to have an awkward conversation there, to better transmit those feelings.
One particular bad point for me is later in the novel when Cheryl and her crew all get shot. Most die outright and one survives for only a few hours, but Cheryl is otherwise unharmed…for no reason whatsoever. Without proper context and explanation, it feels too much like “protagonist aura,” or “just because.”
The biggest flaw in the writing is how later in the novel he splits bigger scenes into multiple chapters, right in the middle of tense sequences, just as something important happens. It makes you lose the ‘immersion’, bringing you out of the scene and making it harder to reconnect.
On the upside, he’s wonderful at setting up scenes out of chronological order, with some events happening for seemingly no reason, only for a chapter down the line to fill out the holes. That’s especially true when you start jumping between the two teams inside the Kardish vessel. One team will see something happen and then you’ll find out it was something the other team did.
Finally, the plot itself is quite good and opens the way for future stories—I know there’s a sequel and I want to read it and Doug provided a nice prequel short story I recommend reading. At first I thought the conspiracy aspects were weak because they reveal the conspirators and their intentions too early in the story, but I then realised it was intentional, to shift the attention from that element to the conflict between the Kardish vessel and our band of protagonists. As I mentioned, the Kardish don’t get much screen time but their reason for begin in orbit and having mankind make Crystals for them is laughable…in a very good way. I won’t ruin it for you, but if you’ve read it I’ll be happy to discuss it. I did find that part hilarious and very clever.
Doug J. Cooper’s Crystal Deception is a very good Sci-Fi novel, with strong characterisation, in depth exploration of philosophical themes and a very well defined world. The prose stumbles at times but it doesn’t detract from the experience.
4/5 – Exceptional