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Able One    by Ben Bova order for
Able One
by Ben Bova
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2010 (2010)

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In Able One, prolific SF author Ben Bova (a six-time Hugo Award winner) offers readers another scary near future thriller, based on a well developed political scenario. The story centers on the development of a National Missile Defense Airborne Laser system mounted in a modified Boeing 747, and its early deployment to defend the United States against a pre-emptive strike.

It all begins when a North Korean nuclear missile detonates in orbit, knocking out unhardened (non-military) satellites around the globe, sending the world 'back to 1950, as far as telephone communications are concerned', also knocking out television, computer networks, GPS, etc.. Cell phones don't work, stock trading is on hold, as are financial transactions and all aspects of daily life that depend on this technological infrastructure. As one General tells the President, 'It's a good way to start a war, sir. Pearl Harbor, in orbit.' Though U.S. military satellites show two more missiles ready to launch, the North Korean government assures authorities that is not involved, but rather military rogue elements.

Harry Hartunian, lead engineer on the ABL-1 (Able One) project has suffered nightmares since an accidental explosion during a test killed his superior and seriously injured him. He is now with Able One, a Defense Airborne Laser mounted in a 747, in Alaska to test the system under bad weather conditions. The 747 pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Karen Christopher, is unhappy with this assignment, which is punishment for her affair with a senior officer. They, along with Karen's crew and Harry's project team, embark on a training flight, which quickly morphs into a serious mission to knock out any further North Korean missile launches - but the technology is not well tested, it's a skeleton crew, and it includes a saboteur.

In a situation room in the Pentagon, an emergency action team must decide what recommendations to make to the President. Michael Jamil, a young civilian analyst, believes that San Francisco, where the President is heading on Air Force One, is the next target, and that the Chinese are behind the attacks. He soon wins the support of the West Wing's representative at the meeting, Zuri Coggins, but they cannot convince the President to change his plans. Soon the 747's training flight - which requires mid-air refueling en route - turns into a desperate race against time, to get near enough to Korean airspace to deploy an untried ray gun in the hope of preventing the onset of World War III.

The storyline is interspersed with a myriad of vignettes that show the damaging effects of loss of satellites on ordinary folks' lives. Though these are certainly valid, their number takes away from the momentum of the main plot. Despite this, Able One is a fascinating and well developed read (and based on a real Missile Defense program) that held my interest to the end.

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