David Harten Watson
Book review of Cold Storage by David Koepp (reviewed by David Harten Watson)
Although otherwise well-written, Cold Storage illustrates the perils of writing about a subject about which the author knows nothing, and not bothering to do any research beyond Wikipedia. It was obvious that the author is a screenwriter and not a novelist, because he made all the same mistakes that Hollywood does. Yet, it was fun to read, despite the mistakes.
In my experience, New York Times bestsellers are usually poorly written, poorly edited, poorly researched, or all of the above, but last month, I decided to take a chance and buy a New York Times bestselling novel anyway, hoping it would be the exception: Cold Storage, by David Koepp. Unfortunately, although it was an exciting read that was hard to put down, it was no exception to the rule that New York Times bestsellers are poorly written, poorly edited, or poorly researched.
This is a long review, but please read to the end to find out how an appalling lack of research combined with poor editing to turn what had begun as a 5-star book into a laughingstock by the end. Its quality steeply declined over the course of the novel from “excellent” to a book that can serve as a warning to writers of the perils of being ignorant of your subject and not bothering to do any research beyond Wikipedia! As a result, it’s hard to assign a star-rating to Cold Storage, because the first two-thirds of the novel were 5-star quality, while the last third of it was three-star at best, full of silly, careless mistakes due to lack of even the most cursory research, mistakes that should have been caught in editing. However, I was an Economics major, so like the Econ major with one foot in boiling water and one foot in ice water who says, “On the average, I feel fine,” I’ll say it averages out to three stars, but the believability of the novel steeply declines the further you read in the book.
Cold Storage is a techno-thriller (a combination of science fiction, action, and horror), very much in the same vein as The Andromeda Strain. In fact, its plot is suspiciously similar to The Andromeda Strain. Both novels begin with a satellite or space station that was contaminated with an alien or mutant microorganism and then fell to earth. In both books, after the satellite falls to earth, Air Force officers were sent to retrieve the downed satellite. In both novels, the Air Force officers sent to retrieve it find everyone in the small town have died suddenly and mysteriously, and in both novels, they seem to have gone crazy before they died. In both books, the alien microorganism, if allowed to spread, could wipe out all human life, an extinction-level event. In The Andromeda Strain, the alien microbe was bacteria, while in Cold Storage, the alien or mutant microbe was a fast-growing fungus.
First, the good points. The novel is fast-paced, full of action, and was so exciting I couldn’t put it down. It also has colorful characters, with at least a half-dozen viewpoint characters (not including the fungus itself, which became a “viewpoint character” at times – more on that absurdity later). The novel even has some romance, an unlikely romance between two extremely different people that somehow – well, I won’t spoil it by revealing how that romance develops or turns out, as I’m trying to keep this review free of any spoilers!
It’s hard to come up with a star-rating for this book, because for the first two-thirds of the book, it was a five-star book, so exciting that I couldn’t put it down! Sure, there was a lot of head-hopping (constantly changing the viewpoint character from paragraph to paragraph), which was sometimes annoying, but it wasn’t confusing, so I could live with that. Sure, even early on, I had some nagging doubts about the believability of the science – the fungus seemed to be highly intelligent, with a will of its own, an extremely rapid ability to adapt, and an uncanny ability to project thoughts into the minds of its human and animal hosts, controlling the minds of people and animals – but I’m not a microbiologist or fungus-ologist (to coin a phrase), so for the first two-thirds of the novel, I just shrugged at the scientific techno-babble and enjoyed the thrilling action.
However, in about the last third of the book, the plot turned more and more implausible, and my suspension of belief became increasingly challenged, until it was impossible to ignore repeated thoughts of “No way; that’s impossible!” It started with the zombie cat and zombie deer that was capable of riding elevators. I am not exaggerating when I call them zombies – that’s what they were. First, there was a cat with a bullet completely through its head, in one side and out the other, blowing its head in half and destroying its brain. After its death, the fungus found it, somehow reanimated it, repaired the damage to its brain, and inserted thoughts into its head, giving it a mission to climb a tree. The cat, I was almost able to shrug off by saying, “Well, after all, cats are supposed to have nine lives, and cats can climb trees, so I can accept that.” But then came the zombie deer….
First, the deer was hit by a car, and three of its legs were broken. Then the man who’d hit it with his car decided to put the deer out of its misery by shooting it six times: once in the stomach by accident, and then five times in the head, five killing shots through the head. Trust me, a deer shot even once in the head is as dead as a doornail, so a deer shot five times in the head is as dead as a coffin nail! Somehow, the fungus found the dead deer and then not only reanimated it, but also repaired the severe damage to its brain from the five bullet tracks through in its head, fixed the three broken legs, put complex thoughts in the deer’s head, told it to enter a specific building, then taught the zombie deer how to ride an elevator up and down. Okay, for a book that had started out as a science-fiction techno-thriller modeled after The Andromeda Strain, this novel had rapidly devolved into an unbelievable novel about zombies. Besides animals, the fungus also infected humans, who were its primary target, but at least the author didn’t have the humans totally die and then come back to life later as zombies – to quote The Princess Bride, the humans inhabited by the fungus were only “mostly dead”, not totally dead.
From this point on, the novel’s believability only got worse. Much worse. The fungus became a character of its own, with sections and chapters devoted to the “point of view” of the fungus. The fungus was given not only goals and aspirations, but also feelings, emotions, memories, desires, and complex thoughts. If the fungus were purely alien, that might be somewhat believable, but unlike The Andromeda Strain, the fungus in Cold Storage wasn’t exactly alien in origin, but merely an earth fungus that had been mutated by the environment of space.
However, the most unbelievable parts of the novel, where the author’s lack of research showed, and the most unforgivable mistakes (because any halfway-competent editor should have caught the mistakes before publication) involved guns. This author, David Koepp, now tops my list of authors making laughably ridiculous mistakes with weapons, surpassing Orson Scott Card (who wrote of the “massive recoil of the M-16”, a gun with virtually zero recoil) and even Veronica Roth (who repeatedly wrote of guns having “handles” and protagonists needing to “click the bullet into the chamber” before every single shot).
The main protagonist of Cold Storage is an Air Force officer in a Special Operations unit who’s supposedly highly familiar with every type of weapon, up to and including “suitcase nukes”. It was bad enough that this protagonist called the gun’s grip a “handle” and called magazines “clips”, mistakes that nobody with even the most basic knowledge of guns would make. I started marking errata (errors) on page 275 (out of 372) of the mass-market paperback version, or 74% of the way to the end.
Page 275 demonstrates a complete disregard for the basic laws of physics. It has a little old lady firing a pistol at a man who is running at the protagonists, “coming at them hard and fast.” David Koepp wrote that the “slugs” [sic] from the handgun “slammed into Mike’s chest with such force that they reversed his course of motion. They lifted him off his feet, blew him back two yards in the air, and dropped him to the cement floor, dead.” You don’t even have to know anything about guns to know how absurd this is – you only have to have taken a high school science class to know Newton’s Third Law of Motion, “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction” (see https://www.livescience.com/46561-newton-third-law.html). This means any force that could act on a grown man enough to have “reversed his course of motion… lifted him off his feet, blew him back two yards in the air,” would have also lifted the old lady off her feet, blown her back four yards in the air, and dropped her to the cement floor, dead. Also, if you knew anything at all about guns, you’d know that there is no gun that can reverse someone’s course of motion and blow them back two yards in the air. Not only is there no handgun that can do that, but there’s also no rifle and no shotgun that can do that (despite what you see in Hollywood movies). I can only conclude that David Koepp got his knowledge of guns from watching Hollywood movies, but I’ve got news for you: Hollywood gets everything wrong about guns, everything.
But the error that made my jaw drop, made me re-read the page repeatedly because I couldn’t believe what I’d just read, and had me scratching my head trying to figure out how the hell anyone could make such an absurd, ridiculous, ludicrous mistake was on page 313 of the mass-market paperback. For those who don’t know anything about guns, the mistake on page 313 was equivalent to having a Harvard professor protagonist claim that Harvard has no law school, or a Jeep salesman claim that Jeeps don’t have four-wheel-drive, or a Princeton professor claim that Princeton isn’t in the Ivy League, or a protagonist who works at the Vatican say that the Pope is a Southern Baptist, or a protagonist living in Manhattan claiming New York City doesn’t have a subway system! The mistake was that obvious to the 300 million Americans who, unlike David Koepp, have any familiarity with guns (not only the over 100 million Americans who own guns, but also obvious to anyone who has ever shot a gun, handled a gun, considered buying a gun, or even known anyone else who owns a gun).
On page 313 of the paperback, the protagonist who’s an Air Force Spec Ops guy (and supposedly a gun expert) not only makes a ridiculous mistake, but does so in excruciating detail: “Roberto took a Glock 19 from an open case, loaded it, and turned it around, offering it to Naomi handle [sic] first… ‘You’ve got a twelve-shot [sic] magazine, a trigger safety here, and a thumb lock [sic] over there. You need to flip both of them [sic] to pull the trigger. Once you’ve pulled, each shot requires another pull, but the safeties won’t re-engage unless you take your finger off the trigger.’”
Now, forget for a moment the misuse of “handle” to mean grip, forget the fact that the Glock 19 doesn’t have a twelve-round magazine, and ignore the totally unsafe gun handling (loading the gun, flipping it around so the muzzle faces himself, then handing the loaded gun to someone). The gun is a Glock, and the best-selling pistol in America, the Glock 19 (so tens of millions of Americans instantly notice the mistake). I’ve never owned a Glock myself, but everyone knows – everyone except author David Koepp and his editors, apparently – Glocks don’t have any manual safeties! None at all. There are no models of Glocks that have manual safeties. For the USAF Special Ops protagonist to claim that a Glock has not one but two manual safeties, and that “You need to flip both of them to pull the trigger” is the most ridiculous gun mistake I’ve ever seen in a book, and I’ve seen some doozies! Not only do Glocks have no safeties, but there are also no handguns from any manufacturer that have two safeties that you have to “flip” off. Then to further write that the safeties will “re-engage” as soon as “you take your finger off the trigger” is beyond ludicrous, because there is no handgun in which a manual safety will “re-engage” as soon as “you take your finger off the trigger.” It would be total idiocy to design any gun with safeties that would “re-engage” as soon as “you take your finger off the trigger,” and again, Glocks have no manual safeties at all. Everyone knows that. The Glock 19 was the best-selling pistol in America in 2020, and everyone knows Glocks have no manual safeties – everyone except author David Koepp and his incompetent editors! With tens of millions of Americans owning Glocks, you’d think the author could have just talked to one of the tens of millions of Americans who own one, rather than just making up fake, nonexistent safeties.
While I was reading page 313 over and over, trying to figure out how the heck David Koepp could have made such an obvious mistake, and in excruciating detail, especially when his protagonist was supposed to be an Air Force Special Ops guy who’s an expert on weapons. I looked up the Wikipedia entry for Glock. First, the Wikipedia entry pointed out that the Glock 19 was the best-selling pistol on Gunbroker in 2020, so you’d think the author could have seem that and just talked to one of the tens of millions of Americans who own one or the hundreds of millions of Americans who have heard of Glocks, but the author chose not to. It’s obvious the author just looked up the Wikipedia entry instead, but he was so ignorant about guns that he totally misunderstood the Wikipedia entry that he was reading, and also looked at the Wikipedia diagram of a Glock and misunderstood the picture he was seeing. When he saw the Wikipedia diagram of a Glock, he mistakenly thought that the slide-lock (which locks the gun open after the last shot) release lever was a safety lever. It’s not. He missed the clear text saying, “Glock pistols lack a traditional on-off safety lever,” and then he read the section about the Glock’s internal safeties (which are simply to prevent an accidental firing if the gun is dropped) and thought they were talking about external safeties! Wikipedia says, “the three safety mechanisms are automatically disengaged one after the other when the trigger is squeezed, and are automatically reactivated when the trigger is released,” but Wikipedia is talking about internal safeties that prevent a gun from firing if dropped, not external safeties, not manual safeties! Let this be a lesson to writers: you should never use Wikipedia for research if you are totally ignorant about the topic of the Wikipedia article, or you will misunderstand the Wikipedia article, and your ignorance will come through in your writing.
Phew, now that I got David Koepp’s most glaringly obvious gun mistake out of the way (page 313),
Then there was page 325, where the author has the recoil of a Heckler & Koch 9mm machine pistol being so severe that it causes paralyzing back injury to the man firing it! Then there’s page 347, where David Koepp writes about bullets “sparking off” a metal surface, something that only happens in Hollywood movies (unless someone is shooting titanium-tipped bullets, which are extremely rare and only useful for target shooting). Then there are pages 354-355, where the author writes that the protagonist “heard their gun go dry with a series of soft clicks,” something that cannot happen with real guns, only in Hollywood movies. Then there are the multiple places in the book where David Koepp calls a gun’s grip its “handle” and its magazine a “clip” (FYI, guns don’t have clips, unless you’re talking about a WWII era M-1 Garand or a WW-1 era bolt-action).
\~David Harten Watsonok review is a lesson to writers: when you have a protagonist who is an Air Force Special Ops guy, you must know what you’re writing about, so you have to do just a teensy-weensy amount of research, something beyond reading Wikipedia articles that you don’t understand or watching Hollywood movies that get all the facts wrong. Now I see that David Koepp is a screenwriter, not a novelist, and that explains a lot – it explains why he seems to get his gun "facts" from Hollywood movies.
~David Harten Watson