Fiction River: Pulse Pounders
Edited by Kevin J. Anderson
Writing a compelling, well-paced thriller is difficult enough when the intended output is novel-length, and to succeed in shorter formats is nothing short of exceptional. Achieving the proper proportions of characterization, action, and stakes is a delicate balancing act, but the possibilities and rewards are almost limitless when everything clicks. Each of the stories in Pulse Pounders is calculated and crafted to offer a mix of action and intrigue, and editor Kevin J. Anderson has selected a varied assortment of short fiction pieces that showcase a number of different approaches to the genre. Stories utilizing science fiction and fantasy elements are interspersed among more realistic tales of suspense and derring-do, but the combination enhances the reading experience. The collection's strength is enhanced by its intuitive order, which stations similar stories throughout the book rather than piling them together; remarkably, Anderson accomplishes this without inducing whiplash. Certain similarities inevitably arise, as do differences in quality, but Pulse Pounders is remarkably even and entertaining throughout.
Despite the authors' general, and expected, reliance on straightforward prose and their shared tendency to rely on more direct exposition than is strictly necessary, neither do they become bogged down by ill-fitting forays into literary aspiration. Pulse Pounders is intended to entertain, and for the most part it does. Even those stories that are situated within extant or intended series are easily accessible to newcomers, and each conveys its own sense of originality. Those that rely most heavily on elements of speculative fiction are as inviting as the more strictly realistic tales, focusing as they do on adrenaline-fueled plots that fit within the collection's stated theme. In many cases, these elements effectively heighten the tension; the foreboding ending of Peter J. Wacks and Kevin J. Anderson's "Change of Mind" or the emotional impact of Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "Sole Survivor" simply wouldn't be as effective were the stakes not raised by the settings, despite a somewhat cliché approach to some narrative elements. "Fraternization," by Ron Collins, is easily the most emotionally resonant story, due in no small part to the effects of a scientific breakthrough and its effect on the protagonist.
The book's pair of time travel tales is excellent, with each successfully navigating the trope's inherent difficulties while providing a thrilling, time-sensitive sequence of events. Thomas K. Carpenter's "Tower One" may not convincingly convey the emotional depth to which it aspires, but its vision of September 11 and overtures toward exploring the nature of regret and the effects of loss and grief are nonetheless compelling. One senses that a truly great story lurks somewhere in the margins, even if it succeeds more as a leaping-off point than as a standalone narrative. Chuck Heintzelman's "Three Strikes" is much more compelling, relying as it does on a countdown that effectively mimics real time without slowing the story down and on flash-forwards that ratchet up the emotional tension. As the book's strongest offering, it provides a more than worthy conclusion. Pulse Pounders may not contain life-altering flights of literary fancy, but it does include a plethora of interesting ideas and thrilling adventures that accomplish their goal of entertaining interested readers.