Conspiracy theories. New ones pop up every day, and old ones just don’t ever seem to go away, no matter how conclusively they are debunked. But what if something happened that seemed to defy coincidence? That couldn’t just be explained away, that had to have a deeper purpose? How far could you hold suspicion in check in the face of the unexplainable?
Sarah Lotz creates such a scenario in The Three, a new novel that documents world reaction to what has come to be known in her alternate history as Black Thursday, when four commuter airplanes from four different airlines crash on four different continents, with the loss of all on board – except for one child on each flight. One child who miraculously survives.
Each crash occurs for different reasons: mechanical failure, bad weather, human error; there are no signs of terrorist attack, no evidence of unexplained explosions, no indication of gunfire or foul play. One plane crashes into the swamps of the Florida Everglades, one is piloted straight into Mount Fuji rather than going down in a heavily populated area, another nosedives into the ocean. The final one slams into the heart of a densely populated township in Cape Town, wreaking as much carnage on the ground as in the air. Some of the passengers are taken in a matter of moments, others are more aware of the danger before the end comes. Thousands die, unexpectedly, tragically, inexplicably.
It doesn’t take long for conspiracy theories to spawn, as so many try to make some sense of what happened. The radical fringe latches on immediately, followed quickly by religious fanatics. Anomalies are exploited, other world events are interpolated, the last voicemail message of a dying passenger is deified and suddenly talk of the Rapture becomes strident. The four child survivors are declared to be the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Panic and paranoia grip the populace and the resultant power struggle away from politics and into religion threatens to upset the balance of global economies.
It’s a very alarming scenario, and one that isn’t all that hard to envision.
Now, I say there was a child on each flight. That’s not strictly correct. There are three known child survivors, one from each of three of the crashes. Although there is no record of a miracle child in the African plane’s downing, rumors abound. For days, weeks, months, the three children – all of whom survived their respective crashes with minimal physical injury – come to be known as “The Three”. There is Jess, a six year old girl from England, who lost her mother, father and twin sister in the crash; there is Hiro, another six year old Japanese boy who lost his mother; and Bobby, a similarly young boy from Brooklyn, who lost his single mother. There is also rumored to be a young African boy, Kenneth, who is the only passenger on the Nigerian air manifest who would fit the criteria of the other children; his remains or any DNA evidence of his being a casualty of the crash have not been found; with all the chaos and confusion surrounding that crash, it is believed by some that he must have just wandered away in confusion and shock. A frantic, cash-reward driven search ensues, adding even more chaos in a still-reeling area.
And we haven’t even touched on the effect of the crashes and the ensuing public scrutiny on The Three themselves, and on those of their families that survive… but those effects may not exactly be what you think they are…
Told in documentary style, as “reported” by Elspeth Martins for her book (within The Three book) entitled Black Thursday: From Crash to Conspiracy – Inside the Phenomenon of The Three, the story of the crashes and their aftermath unfolds through transcripts of interviews, email correspondences, authority reports, text messages, official announcements, and other types of documentation. We hear from the caregivers of The Three, neighbors, friends, gossips, confidantes, and more, um, tawdry correspondents. There are aviation reports, interviews with first responders to the crash, and many different angles and insights that, while told in a somewhat tabloid manner, do not draw conclusions from the mounting hysteria and eventual continued tragedy that unfolds.
It makes for some very eerie, squirm inducing-reading.
I give author Sarah Lotz props for building a very believable situation where our societies across the globe are undermined by our own media-fueled fears running rampant. Her envisioned future is one of great turmoil, where rabid belief and rigid ideology rushes in to fill the vacuum that occurs in the inability to explain just what has happened and why. Cooler heads not only do not prevail, they become increasingly hard to find, even – perhaps especially – at the higher levels.
Where the novel stumbles, however, is the lack of empathy we have with the actual characters of the story – the children themselves, and those unexpectedly thrust into the role of caregiver. Because the story is presented solely through documentation and not narrative, we never truly get to know these people; their thoughts and feelings are filtered through what they might share with a reporter, not what they actually think and feel in their heart of hearts. The Three themselves are never directly addressed or interviewed; we only hear of them secondhand at best. This distancing of the reader makes it hard to feel any kind of sympathy for what is happening to the individual.
There is an attempt at a suspense building up to the conclusion of the story that also falls flat in its development. Hints are dropped like lead balloons (since the “reader” of the Black Thursday book already knows what has happened to the children, references are given to events which we as more removed readers are not aware), and then left like cliffhangers while the direction changes to another sub-story. Rather than enhancing the narrative, however, this feels like we’re being hit with a cheap shot, or a bad plot shift in a B grade movie. While understandable within the context of the “book” within the novel, we as readers need to feel as though we are seeing more deeply than the tabloid understanding presented to a panicking (fictitious) readership. And the hints are so broad, it’s not much of a mystery as to where things are headed. No suspense here.
There are a few slightly sloppy bits, too, things that don’t exactly ring true in the details (such as a description of an insulin-dependent diabetic) and a few too many sub-characters that come through as broad stereotypes. These factors tend to undermine the strength of the actual writing, which is a shame because the writing itself is strong.
While The Three is an interesting read with a haunting premise and very chilling environment, it ultimately remains superficial and unsatisfying. Ms. Lotz does appear to be a very gifted storyteller – hopefully her next book will allow her to actually tell a story, rather than simply hint at one.