Forbidden Area: As chilling now as when it was first published

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Forbidden Area by Pat FrankForbidden Area by Pat Frank SFF book reviewsForbidden Area by Pat Frank

Foreign espionage and sabotage undermining the credibility of American armed forces. A counter-intelligence group mocked and silenced for its theories. Shadowy plans, decades in the making. The fate of the world caught in the balance between devastation and salvation. Pat Frank describes all of these in Forbidden Area, which was first published in 1956 and is still terrifying sixty-one years later.

Harper Perennial’s 2016 re-issue of Forbidden Area only clocks in at just over 200 pages and contains four interlocking plotlines, each of which is essential to the overarching story. First there’s the introductory tale of Henry and Nina, two teenagers who happen to be necking in the Florida surf on what, in hindsight, will be an extremely momentous night. They see something that should be impossible: a large submarine discharging a smaller craft, out of which drives a Buick. The Buick contains the impetus for a second plotline concerning Stanislaus Lazinoff, alias Stanley Smith, and three co-conspirators who have all been trained by the Soviet government for deep-cover missions. The third plotline concerns the Pentagon’s “Intentions of the Enemy Group,” a carefully chosen task force comprised of seven civilian experts in various fields, all of whom work toward determining what a given enemy might do, then advising the American government with regards to the best course of reaction or avoidance. When B-99 bombers begin exploding on what should be utterly routine “milk run” training missions, the I.E.G. combines that information with troubling reports of Russian submarine movement around the world, and comes to a terrifying conclusion. Finally, there’s Robert Gumol, a banker with deep ties to the Soviet government, who spots a chance to flee Philadelphia for Havana under the pretense of a golf vacation, hoping that his many betrayals won’t incur execution by either the Russians or the Americans.

Time is spent with characters who are essential to each of these storylines, whether they’re one-offs like Smith’s bunkmate Phil Cusack or crucial figures like Katharine Hume, the sole female member of the I.E.G. and a brilliant scientist employed by the Atomic Energy Commission. Hume’s gender makes her a rarity in her line of work, but Frank makes it plain early on that she has achieved such high regard because of her work ethic and intelligence rather than favoritism or appearance. The other members of the I.E.G. are equally qualified in their own disciplines, and the camaraderie (and occasional division) between the group contributed greatly to the realism within Forbidden Area, especially after their projections for a Russian attack on the U.S. are ignored and B-99s continue to explode. The seeming hopelessness of their efforts to determine the cause of the disasters, alongside their efforts to receive attention toward the very real danger threatening the East Coast, ratchet up the tension until the novel’s very last pages.

Frank doesn’t give an exact year for these events; he only mentions that Christmas Eve is in the very near future — affecting the overall lackadaisical reaction of government officials to the I.E.G.’s insistence that something bad will happen soon, and may already be in motion — and instead uses contemporary technology and slang to establish time and place. The terror his characters feel over the eradication of 160 million Americans might seem quaint when compared against today’s population of an estimated 330 million, but it is quite real to them, and becomes real to the reader through Frank’s prose and dialogue. After all, the man spent most of his life working either as a journalist or as a propagandist for the U.S. government; he knew how to turn a phrase to its greatest effect, and does so repeatedly throughout Forbidden Area. The very notion that “Silence never sent a man to Siberia” is only one example of several pithy, incisive observations peppering the novel.

Change up a few details, modernize some of the technology, and you could just as easily be looking at today’s news as a classic work of speculative fiction. For all its brevity, Forbidden Area tackles some hefty ideas, and Frank’s masterful plotting will captivate readers. Highly recommended.

Originally published in 1956. From the author of the post-apocalyptic classic Alas Babylon, comes this eerie, cold war thriller. A young teenage couple having a rendezvous one night on a beach in Florida suddenly sees a submarine emerge from the ocean. Armed soldiers disembark the vessel and a Buick drives off its landing ramp. For Henry Hazen, who is scheduled to ship out to an army training camp the next day, the sight leaves him uneasy, but he tells no one what he has witnessed. Katherine Hume is the only woman working for the Pentagon’s Atomic Energy Commission. From intelligence they have gathered, she and her team are convinced the Russians are poised to conduct a nuclear attack on the U.S. on or shortly before Christmas. But convincing their superiors an attack is imminent is proving far more difficult than she could have imagined—even after several stealth fighter planes and their pilots go missing over the Gulf. Banker Robert Gumol sees all the signs that the big attack is finally coming. As a reluctant spy for the Russians, Gumol’s loyalties lie more with his adopted country than his motherland. Deciding to take the next flight to Havana, he risks being executed by the Russians if his betrayal is discovered—but he’s willing to put it all on the line for a chance at freedom. With the clock ticking, the fate of America hangs by a very thin thread. A classic of science fiction that is a cautionary tale of the dangers of nuclear power, Forbidden Area is as timely today as it was when it was first published in 1958.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L’Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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