If you read political thrillers or action novels for their ability to transport you away from the concerns of current events into a fantasy that seems realistic but is purely fictional, then Steve Alten's book The Shell Game is probably not for you. And I wouldn't blame you; most folks probably don't want anxieties about their real lives and the future of our society to be a central part of the escapist action and adventure reading that we do on the beach. But after I heard that the book takes on the realities of peak oil, government corruption, American foreign policy and the political futures of today's Presidential candidates, and weaves them all into a 466 page novel, I couldn't help but be intrigued by it. Here's my review, some spoilers if you read on.
And wow, Alten sure did take on a lot. The book is chock full of quotes from, excerpts of and references to various real government documents, media stories, Congressional reports, oil industry studies, political interviews, websites and various other sources. Wrapped up in a story that is interesting, reminiscent of Tom Clancy, and not entirely believable, the author is clearly making his case on some pretty serious topics: the coming end of cheap energy, the actual timeline of events on September 11th 2001, current political plans of neo-conservatives, and the relationship between the U.S. government and the Saudi Royal Family. As someone who is glad to see some of these issues brought to light in a semi-mainstream way, I almost wish Alten had bit off a little less so that he could have chewed it better; at times the constant barrage of information about conspiracy, deception and destruction is a little hard to take. Fox Mulder would be a little overwhelmed. But I suppose the author felt some need to balance out the relative lack of coverage of these matters in other works, let alone in the media as a whole, so he crammed it all in there.
I'll just say right now that this book is really going to tick off a lot of people, especially those who might trend toward an unquestioning loyalty to a certain current U.S. President and his policies. Heck, the book cover is going to tick those people off. It says some stuff that will seem pretty outrageous to many, treasonous to some, and perhaps worthy of retaliation to a few. For his sake, I hope Mr. Alten has thought that part through well enough, but I commend him for staking a successful writing career on it.
As engaging of real world issues as the book was, I fear that the weak and much too nicely wrapped up ending of The Shell Game is a sign of the extreme difficulty in actually achieving the lofty state of affairs that the world reaches in Alten's telling. By 2012, corrupt government officials are being held accountable, the media is willing to report on meaningful issues that affect the future of our culture, Presidential campaigns are fairly funded by federal election funds, lobbyists and 527s are outlawed, rigged touch-screen voting machines are exposed, the Saudi Royal Family is exiled, Ethanol is on its way to replacing gasoline at the pump, and wind turbines are powering 50 percent of American homes. And unfortunately, quotes from John Lennon ("imagine...") and Gandhi ("be the change...") top it all off. It's a great vision, it really is, but come on.
The Shell Game isn't for everyone, and again, it's going to tick a lot of people off. But if you like to be challenged a bit and if you're curious about what a novel cut from the cloth of real events, real questions about 9/11, and real oil-related troubles that lie ahead might look like, it's worth trying on.