When NASA Robotics Engineer Derek Marshall hears that a tropical storm is headed his way, he decides to ride out the storm at home. After all, living in Texas’ Gulf Coast he had been through plenty of storms, what was one more? Then the storm strengthened again and again, until Hurricane Elsa roared ashore as a Category 4, decimating everything in her path, including Derek’s neighborhood. Derek has just rescued an abandoned dog left behind in a house on his street when he gets a call from his boss telling him that his skills and special robot are needed now at a damaged nuclear reactor to help contain the situation. One helicopter ride later and Derek, Fido, and Number Five, his robot, are deposited in front of Dr. Sambit Patel, professor of nuclear engineering at Texas A& M. Dr. Patel has had his services volunteered by the university in hopes he can help cool the reactors.
Sambit is astonished to see a grubby jeans clad man with a dog trotting beside him hand over some suitcases and prepare to go inside the power plant. Sambit’s attempts to stop him from bringing the dog inside end in a argument as weary, stressed out Derek comes up against reserved, quiet Sambit. Adding additional fuel to the instant antagonism is the fact that Dereck is an out, proud, and in your face gay while Sambit is reserved and closeted about his sexuality.
But the dangers of radiation poisoning, isolation, and poor living conditions start to bring the men together. Derek finds that the more he listens and works with Sambit, the more he appreciates his quiet introspective ways, intelligent mind, and the subtle beauty of his Indian physique. Sambit learns that the prickly, obnoxious front Derek presents to the world is a barrier that hides a sensitive, hurt soul. Plus he doesn’t miss the fact that Derek is gorgeous to look at either. Each man has a past that is holding him back from a closer relationship. And time is against them as they race against the clock and lack of information to cool down the reactor and keep the plant from having a nuclear meltdown.
Fallout spoke to me on so many levels, not the least of which is the unexpected plot which revolves around a nuclear accident brought on by a hurricane. Ariel Tachna dedicated this novel to ” the heroes of Fukushima Dai-ichi, whose willingness to risk their lives to save others inspired this novel,” so it is clear who and what prompted the storyline for this book. Natural disasters and nuclear power plants have been a hot topic in the news and rightly so given the extreme weather patterns we are now seeing. I myself sit 1 1/2 hours from the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Lusby, Maryland and the protests in Japan are on the rise as their reactors come back on line. The relevance of this storyline is all around us.
How real does the nuclear disaster feel? Unbelievably so. I was glued to the book wondering where and how far Tachna was going with the meltdown. I don’t know where Tachna got her information about the inner workings of a nuclear power plant, the technical jargon, and the emergency repairs necessary to cool the rods, but I felt as though I was getting insider information at all times. As Sambit and Derek maneuver the robot Number Five through debris strewn corridors, taking radiation readings as they calculate the quickest way to get coolant into the reactor without plant maps or detailed plant malfunctions, I never once doubted the authenticity of the information the author was giving us. In fact, I began to wonder when and in what capacity she had worked in the nuclear field. Most of the time I felt like I was an interloper looking over the shoulders of the men as they scrambled to find the solutions they desperately needed before the power plant, themselves, and all of Bay City became another statistic like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. You do not have to be a science geek to appreciate the drama and the technology that goes into this part of the story, all you need is your imagination and a reminder of the pictures we saw transmitted from Japan to feel the impact of each and every scene.
The second element of the novel that drew me in was the multicultural romance between Derek and Sambit. The author’s close connections to India and its people comes alive through the character of Sambit Patel. The more we learn about Sambit, the better we understand him and eventually come to love him as we do Derek. Tachna uses his thoughts and actions to acquaint the reader with some Indian customs, dress, cultural beliefs and even native cuisine, such as sambar. We learn about Sambit’s past which had made him think that most relationships will not work out for him, his daily use of Yoga to relieve his stress that started in his youth, and where his reticence about his homosexuality stems from. The character of Sambit Patel could have easily been white but we would have been missing out had that been the case, and this book much less rich in flavor and dimension. I cannot stress how much I loved this part of the story and the character Sambit Patel.
Derek Marshall is also a wonderful creation. There are so many layers to his emotional makeup, including a horrific incident from his high school days that has shaped his outlook and his approach to society in general. Brilliant and abrasive, he strikes out before someone can hit him, yet he is also reflective, sensitive, and more willing to take chances than the reserved Patel. He is full of dichotomies and that both appeals to and repeals Sambit. It is a delicate dance they engage in as their close proximity and 24/7 work hours starts to bring them to an understanding and acceptance of each other’s nature that changes into appreciation and need. And all the while, they never lose sight of the reason they are both there, that their individual talents need to mesh to help bring the power plant under control. It may be crazy but in many ways this is a rushed slow relationship built under pressure that exposes the best of both men to each other.
The rest of the story takes place with Derek once more at home having to deal with boredom and the ravaged remains of his neighborhood and infrastructure while Sambit has stayed behind, a choice made by a homophobic bureaucrat in charge of the recovery operations. We see Derek’s neighborhood start to clean up after the hurricane as he worries about the radiation levels Sambit and the others left behind are encountering. And as Sambit deals with the loss of Derek after his continual presence, we learn about Sambit’s insecurities and the past history that threatens the fragile foundation of their relationship. Again, Tachna’s description of how these men build their relationship, the barriers they have to overcome within themselves is as real as the natural disaster that brings them together.
If I had any quibble with this story, then I believe Derek answered it himself. Number Five is a robot that has a special place in Derek’s heart. The name comes from the movie Short Circuit which I loved. He hoped to patent it and has kept it close to him all this time. And part of me wondered how Derek felt about leaving it behind. But then Derek himself answered that he builds robots for space and came to terms with the fact that they would never come back at the beginning of his career. Plus Number Five was helping Sambit stay alive and healthy which would have been number one priority with Derek. So that quibble wobbled and vanished. There is no angst here but the story of a real,wonderful relationship between two men caught up in a natural disaster. This is an outstanding story that should not be missed.
Cover. This cover by Shobana Appavu is easily one of my favorite. Dramatic, beautiful and intense. Great job.