THE NINTH METAL
By Benjamin Percy
There are many novels about the end of the world; much rarer are books that don’t destroy all life on Earth, just kind of screw around with it a little to see what happens. In Tom Perrotta’s “The Leftovers,” a sizable chunk of humanity goes poof; in Karen Thompson Walker’s lovely “The Age of Miracles,” the planet’s rotation inexplicably slows. Ask your favorite science-fiction fan about Wild Cards, a sprawling multi-author series that unspools in postwar America after an alien virus turns some people into mutants, others into superheroes.
In Benjamin Percy’s “The Ninth Metal,” the big weirdness arrives right away, in a brief prologue. After a comet called Cain buzzes by, Earth passes through a meteor shower: “Hundreds and then thousands and then hundreds of thousands and finally an uncountable storm of meteors” sizzle into our atmosphere and plant themselves “like the seeds of the night” in the Earth’s crust. The deposits left behind are akin to the eight noble metals but even nobler: extraordinarily conductive and resistant to corrosion, with a seemingly limitless range of uses. Oh, and a nifty blue glow. Cue the gold rush.
“The Ninth Metal” unfolds primarily in Northfall, a formerly sleepy Minnesota town Percy describes in loving detail, not only the lakes and caves and frozen forests and grocery stores and greasy spoons, but all the “diggers, dredgers, miners, moles, cowboys, metal-heads” who’ve come to town to make their fortunes. Plus the cultists on the outskirts of town, who both pray to omnimetal and get high on the stuff, all while muttering an oddly truncated mantra: “Metal is.”
It’s a busy town, and a busy book. After an intriguing start, “The Ninth Metal” buries its promise under metric tons of story. Rival companies are battling for turf in a series of escalating attacks and counterattacks; a rookie cop is searching for her missing partner, with the help of her wise fisherman father; a kid named Hawkin is languishing in a Department of Defense facility, captive to a nasty government agent testing the limits of the boy’s apparent invulnerability. Skulking through all these plots is a tortured hero named John Frontier, scion of a local mining-outfit-slash-crime-family, who carries with him a dark past and his own suite of superhuman powers.
Percy, author of genre thrillers like “The Dark Net” and “Red Moon,” is deft at catching attention with sharp lines of dialogue or bursts of action, especially to round out a chapter. One such startling moment, an act of violence visited upon poor captive Hawkin, took my breath away. But “The Ninth Metal” shifts too frequently among its many characters, piling up the love stories and back stories and side stories, making it hard to develop a rooting interest in any.
Most strange is the fact that, for long stretches of the novel, omnimetal itself feels like an afterthought. “Some people call it the greatest energy source in the world,” we are told. “Others call it a defiance of everything scientists have come to understand about physics and biochemistry. And a few call it God.” Though we get a few glimpses of this potential — the Bullet train that speeds along on omnimetal tracks, for example, or a giant laser-lit welding tool called the “wizard blade,” later wielded by the government baddie — omnimetal feels for the most part like a plot convenience: something for rival gangs to clash over, something that affords godly abilities to select characters.
There are occasional intriguing glimpses of the ninth metal’s otherworldly origins, but they are swept away in the rapid-fire series of violent confrontations that wrap up the various plots. “The Ninth Metal” is billed as the first in a trilogy of novels set in a shared universe; hopefully more explanations will be along for the ride the next time the comet comes around.