by Timothy S. Johnston
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis
Touted as a locked-room mystery updated as horror Science Fiction, Timothy S. Johnston’s debut novel The Furnace has cover blurbs comparing it to The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And while it doesn’t quite outshine those SF classics, it sits comfortably in their shadow, a flawed—but fun—homage.
In the distant year 2401, humanity has spread out across the solar system, governed by the suppressive, authoritarian Confederate Combined Forces. When murder is suspected on SOLEX One, a remote research facility orbiting the sun, the CCF Security Division dispatches Lieutenant Kyle Tanner, its best homicide detective to investigate.
But more murders occur in the wake of Tanner’s arrival, including an attempt on Tanner’s own life. In the investigation that proceeds, Kyle uncovers a shocking threat that could not only claim the rest of the station crew, but humanity itself.
On the surface, The Furnace has a lot going for it. Its remote setting and classic premise are primed to deliver intrigue and suspense, and it ideally should have been a quick, exciting read. But while Johnston’s writing is serviceable enough, the narrative suffers from one key flaw: overkill.
The first rule of good writing is “show, don’t tell.” But Johnston both shows and tells. And tells. And tells some more.
Serving as the novel’s first-person protagonist, Tanner clearly comes across as a no-nonsense, by the book military officer—a CCF man through and through who’s very good at his job. And his methodical approach to the investigation and telling dialog with the suspect station personnel serve as the perfect vehicle to let the story unfold naturally. And it would have, had Johnston not supplemented Tanner’s every move and discovery along the way with unnecessary mental exposition.
As a result, the proceedings are slowed down by many passages that easily could have been cut in half without affecting story comprehension. If Johnston had only had the confidence to let character traits and narrative turns speak for themselves, instead of relentlessly spoon-feeding motivation to his readers, he would have come closer to producing the taut page turner he was aiming for.
Unfortunately, the overkill doesn’t end there. For reasons integral to the plot, Johnston had to explain the concept of exponential growth: 1+1 = 2; 2+2 = 4; 4+4 = 8; 8+8 =16 and so on. I managed to do it there 27 characters (and the 8+8 example probably wasn’t even necessary). But Johnston provides not one, but three long explanations of the concept, one of them even backed up with charts and graphs.
I understand that he may have been doing this for the benefit of traditional thriller readers who may not be especially science or Science Fiction minded. But any one of the explanations alone would have sufficed.
And there’s stylistic overkill as well, with Johnston’s increasing overuse of italics and italic clauses—much like this one—to hammer home certain thoughts or ideas as the book progresses, presumably to amp up the tension. But it comes off as the literary equivalent of those melodramatic organ cues you hear on old-time radio soaps, undercutting big reveals and plot twists with needlessly excessive narrative flag waving. To write it as Johnston might: Enough already! We get it!
But overwritten doesn’t mean badly written, and The Furnace is enjoyable, despite being somewhat by the numbers. It has a large ensemble cast of fairly stock players, but Johnston tries to make each of them stand out in turn, with varying success. Unfortunately, the big mystery isn’t all that difficult to figure out. But there’s plenty of action (even if a lot of it feels redundant after a while), and Johnston does a good job of world building.
In the larger scheme of things, The Furnace is a perfect example of both the benefits and dangers inherent in the burgeoning self-publishing landscape. Without outfits like Create Space—which Johnston used to produce this book—The Furnace and novels like it from unknown authors would probably never see the light of day. But something is lost by circumventing the traditional publishing process. Because, to be blunt, The Furnace is your quintisential “diamond-in-the-rough” first novel that would have benefited greatly from a good editor and a couple of rewrites.
But the bones are there, and while The Furnace may not be on par with the classics it seeks to emulate, it rifs on their familiar old chords with enough finesse to be entertaining in its own right.