Spoilers ahead. Read at your peril!
I first read Fade-Out back in 1978 when I was an impossibly shaggy-haired 14 year old. I read the revised edition in 1987 when I was a svelte-haired 23 year old. And now, over two decades later I have read it a third time, as a fuzz-haired 48 year old.
This time around I read the revised 1987 text in ebook format. The revised edition doesn’t change the story in any notable way nor does it add to its length, as most of the revisions are just updated pop culture references. Somewhat humorously, the politics remain the same, something that would have altered more drastically if author Patrick Tilley had held off for a few more years (when the Berlin Wall and Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 and 1991, respectively).
The story presents an unfolding mystery that starts with a global “fade-out” of all radar systems that lasts 22 minutes. This proves to be quite a bother, especially for airplanes, but everyone gets through it okay. Tensions between the U.S. and USSR ramp up as the Americans suspect Russian shenanigans.
When a large craft with unusual reflective properties appears in orbit, the U.S. again fear the Soviets have developed some Star Wars-style space weapons platform (before Star Wars even existed, how prescient!) Another longer fade-out occurs and when it ends the craft is gone. It’s later discovered that a meteorite that crashed at Crow Ridge, Montana may be related and the government is all over the place like the NSA on your tweets and likes*.
The story follows the government team assembled to investigate the site in Crow Ridge, among them nebbish Arnold Wedderkind, science advisor to the President, General Mitch “tolerates civilians only to a point” Allbright, the head of Strategic Air Command, and and Bob “everyman” Connors, special advisor to the President. And of course, the President (who is daringly depicted as Italian American).
What this group finds at Crow Ridge is a dome-shaped object rising out of the ground. It’s made of an incredibly hard crystal-like substance and is impervious to testing. Beneath its translucent surface is a creepy pattern that looks like a brain cortex. With no fanfare the object blankets the immediate vicinity with a mini fade-out, making most electrical equipment and vehicles non-functional. This goes away in time and the science team sets up shop, with Allbright and the military mucky-mucks waiting for the first sign of hostility so they can start a-shootin’.
Instead, the dome reveals a complex hatch that opens and lets out a large mechanical spider-type thing. It appears to be weaponless, a probe of sorts, so it is observed, rather than shot.
The 1978 paperback edition luridly depicts the spider terrorizing Washington, something that never actually happens:
It got me to buy the book, though, so I can’t properly condemn the bait and switch.
Over the course of the story, the mystery of the dome and spider deepens, with their enigmatic presence and a sudden reappearance and spread of the fade-out effect prompting discussion of military options up to and including, effectively, nuking it from orbit (except actually from a jet).
The worst aspect of Fade-Out is probably the maleness of it. The few female characters are peripheral–not a bad thing, necessarily–but are treated somewhat disrespectfully. It brought to mind the R.E.M. lyric “a simple prop to occupy my time”. This is a bad thing. I suppose you can defend this by saying the male characters are the ones out of touch, not the author, but it doesn’t quite ring true. The characters also have the habit of engaging in philosophical debates that don’t sound like actual people conversing but rather the author playing out different points of view for the reader’s benefit.
Despite that, the story itself is intriguingly presented, with no easy answers or pat revelations. The scientists struggle against the unknown technology, trying to divine the purpose of machinery that defies testing and reveals little about an overall purpose. There is the feeling that perhaps a test is being conducted but to what end is left an open question.
If you like your science fiction set in the here and now (well, the here and now of 1987–there’s nary an iPod in sight) and filled with riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas, you may like Fade-Out’s depiction of Man vs. Mysterious Machine. I liked the premise enough to nick it for a short story.
* reference to the NSA’s vast snooping program, which will hopefully seem quaint and outdated in a few years