“No Man’s Land” by David Baldacci on the surface seems like a science fiction story. But this thriller, featuring U.S. Army criminal investigator John Puller, has a very plausible theme with a compelling and action-packed plot.
The storyline has two men combating demons they experienced 30 years ago. Seemingly unrelated, Baldacci does a great job intertwining the two characters. Puller’s mother disappeared 30 years ago and now CID investigators are accusing his father of possibly murdering her. Aided by his brother Robert, an Air Force major, and Veronica Knox, who works for a shadowy U.S. intelligence organization, Puller begins a journey that will take him back into his own past to find the truth about his mother.
Simultaneously, Paul Rogers begins his own journey after getting paroled from jail. He was basically a guinea pig in an experiment to make a “super soldier.” His body was altered so that he wouldn’t fear physical pain, his brain was changed so that he wouldn’t feel guilt over killing and he was changed to become a fighting machine. Regretting being turned into a “monster,” he seeks out the two people responsible for his plight to make them pay for ruining his life.
Beyond this riveting and heart-wrenching story, Baldacci explores many issues, including dementia, human experiments and conspiracy theories. He has a knack for having the reader hate some of the characters in the beginning, only to root and care for them by the ending.
“No Man’s Land” is an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Readers will be hooked from page one. Besides the tension-edged plot, the thought-provoking themes will allow people to question how far military experiments should go.
A Q and A with the author follows:
Elise Cooper: Many of your books have a shout out to the military.
David Baldacci: My dad was in the Navy, and I have a lot of friends in the military and police. I think those in the military and police are very special people, which is why I wrote this book quote about Puller a former combat veteran and now a CID investigator, sprinting “toward, not away from, the violence.” I have tremendous respect for them. It is an incredibly difficult job under the best of circumstances and far more complicated than people realize. We need to hold these people up and encourage them to serve in these professions.
EC: DARPA, the Department of Defense’s research arm on emerging technologies, plays a large role in this book. Please explain.
DB: It is an interesting agency. My super soldier theme is not all fiction, since they have worked on it for a long time. A lot of what I spoke about in the book is something they have been, or are currently, working on, including brain implants and making soldiers able to heal themselves on the battlefield.
I think one of their long-range goals is to make our fighting force more effective. I know this sounds very H. G. Wells, but it is the way the world works.
EC: Your character Paul Rogers seems to be a guinea pig to the scientists.
DB: A friend of mine who is in the military told me it is all about the mission, and personal safety does not come into the equation. I guess guinea pigs are necessary to move the mission forward. I wanted to attack this from the human side, and the dark side of it all.
At some point this has to be tested on real people. Their goal is to make the soldier more efficient, more combat ready, stronger and with greater endurance. A lot of this can only happen with technology. Is it a dark or sweet part? General Robert E. Lee said, “It is well that war is so terrible — otherwise we would grow too fond of it.”
We don’t want to possibly change a person to being non-human. I am not saying to stop the projects, but we must be skeptical and ask the necessary questions about modifying soldiers. We must be aware that technology and humanism sometimes collide.
EC: It was interesting how you were able to change Rogers from a psychopath to a sympathetic figure.
DB: It was quite a challenge. I started off with this guy who seemed like a monster, who has killed people. Then I chipped away at the reader’s perception of him. I tried to do it scene-by-scene, paragraph-by-paragraph, word-by-word and action-by-action. I hoped to peel away layers of this monster to show someone abused and modified. It was a unique challenge to get people to care for this guy over the course of the book.
EC: Is this a conspiracy theory book?
DB: I wanted to explore different questions. Where do all the dollars go that fund DARPA? Who is behind the scenes controlling it? Are they higher-ups that can never be touched? Are these geo-political players who try to benefit themselves?
EC: You seem to enjoy writing stories where the brain is affected.
DB: Yes. I think about how the brain defines personality, who someone is and how they react to others. When modified, changed and pierced by artificial means, the outcome is very scary. Putting something together that is supposedly perfect is only in the eyes of the beholder. It’s their definition of what is perfect.
Let’s not forget Hitler’s desire to create the perfect Aryan race. But, I also wrote in this book about how Puller’s father is suffering from dementia, and he felt how he basically lost him. It destroys people from within.
EC: You continue that theme with the backstory on John Puller
DB: Yes. In the first three Puller books I gave little teasers. In this book I was able to go back and allow him to see his childhood through his own eyes. I hoped to humanize him and deepen his character.
I showed how human beings memories are a funny thing. John could not remember some things from his childhood that his brother, Robert, had. We tend to embellish, de-emphasize or banish to the dark corners of our memory different thoughts. His childhood memories were muddled.
EC: Even with your Amos Decker series you continue the theme about the affect on our brains.
DB: Yes. He is a former NFL player who is unable to forget anything following a helmet-to-helmet crash. This and the concussions affected him. For me, it is now difficult to watch this sport, because I am thinking about how their brains will be gone.
EC: Can you give a heads up about your next book?
DB: It will be an Amos Decker story called “The Fix,” out in April. He takes on a case in Washington, D.C., where he was a witness. It is a clash between him and the inner workings of Washington, D.C. I enjoy writing fiction that is based on realism and can be thought provoking.