The God Particle is a strange little book in a tug of war with itself. On the one hand, Richard Cox offers an intriguing hard SF premise. A group of scientists at a privately funded supercollider are getting very close to discovering the elusive Higgs boson, the "God particle" of the title, the theoretical most-fundamental, it-doesn't-get-smaller-than-this particle that is physics' holy grail. But on the other, he's written a cliché-ridden, Cinemaxy trash novel with characters who obsess about sex so much you'll think the book should've been called American Pi.
Sex — not so much the actual act as exhaustively detailed examinations of almost every character's personal hang-ups about it — is such a pervasive element throughout the story's first two-thirds that it entirely overpowers the book's scientific premise, nearly pushing it back to the position of subplot. (Readers will be forgiven for reactions in a "WTF? I thought this was about the God particle" vein.) Then, as the story races to its climax, it's as if Cox remembers what the whole thing was supposed to be about in the first place, and we get what feels like a lot of frenzied catching up, with characters exchanging huge expository speeches as they rush to figure everything out. The God Particle isn't without its share of compelling scenes and entertainment value. But it ultimately suffers from Cox's inability to make up his mind whether or not to write straight-up hard SF or a mainstream bestseller geared toward the Dan Brown zombies. It isn't surprising that the final product is a little on the scattershot side.
The book opens with the following passage: "Steve isn't stupid. He can tell by the way she keeps stealing glances at him, by the way she follows everything he says with squeaky titters, by the gradually shrinking perimeter of his personal space this afternoon, that Serena wants him." Setting aside the obvious fact that SF hasn't seen portrayals of women this patronizing since Heinlein went senile, the point is that this sets the tone for most of the book. There is more of this stuff going on than anything resembling science fiction. And while I enjoy good sex in my fiction just fine, I'd at least like a little truth in packaging. With Laurell Hamilton, you know what you're getting, after all.
Steve Keeley, a well-paid executive for an auto parts manufacturer, is in Zurich for a conference where he buys his girlfriend an engagement ring and spends the rest of his time fighting off the kind of desperately horny female assistant that executives only have in trash novels or TV movies from the 80's. After inadvertently learning that his equally randy fianceé back home (if anyone can tell me where all these sex-mad women live, drop me a line so I can get in touch with a real estate agent, hopefully a hot young brunette one who will help me break in the furniture) is banging some other dude in his absence, Steve goes off to a nightclub/brothel to drown his sorrows. In a room upstairs with one of the girls — who seems to like her profession, so I guess she's not one of the thousands of kidnapped eastern European sex slaves who work at these places in real life — Steve is inexplicably manhandled by one of the bouncers, who hurls him out a third floor window.
But Steve doesn't die. He awakens in a Swiss hospital, where some emergency brain surgery has saved his life. A little bewildered that he survived such a fall, Steve is even more surprised to find that he can detect some kind of mysterious field. It gives him the impression that he is being watched, and moreover, that he can control matter — though his few attempts to actually do so don't work too well. But when he starts reading minds, that's when he knows something more than just a fall out of a window happened to him in Zurich. Though Cox doesn't come out and say it, we know it's the Higgs field, the underlying particles of the universe itself, that Steve is sensing.
Back home, Mike McNair is a particle physicist running a program at a privately funded superconducting super collider (not to be confused with an okay-conducting so-so-collider) in Texas, which is under a great deal of pressure from a mysterious European backer to prove the existence of the Higgs boson. McNair has to deal with several issues at once. There's Samantha, the go-getter young hotshot who looks to have been brought in to eventually replace him if he doesn't produce and soon. There's his pathetically geeky programmer buddy Larry, whom we learn is such a pathetic no-hoper with the ladies that he's barely a hair's breadth away from turning psycho. And there's Kelly, the hot-hot-hot Dallas news anchor with whom he has struck up a relationship after meeting her on a flight.
Whatever SFnal promise the story's premise might have had is subsumed by its tawdry soap opera. Character development is almost entirely devoted to everyone's sex drives. There's Mike's growing attraction to Kelly. Kelly's attraction to Mike and fears for how it might affect her career advancement. Serena's increasingly frantic attempts to bed Steve. Larry's growing pathologies, mostly rooted in a lifetime of jealousy towards Mike's success with women; he even reaches the point of sending anonymous creeper e-mails to Kelly out of spite, and rigging hidden video cameras in Mike's house so he can watch them getting it on! Meanwhile, Samantha learns Larry has tinkered with his code to further spite Mike, and later, they go to bed for no reason I could fathom. Hell, even the minor character of the shrink Steve sees has a complicated sex life. Cox has Steve read her mind, and what do we learn? That she enjoys windsurfing and watching Raymond? No, that's she's cheating on her husband with another woman.
So you see, it's all just sex sexy sex sex. It seems not to occur to Cox that there's more to a person than their priapic urges. Does Mike like baseball? Does Larry do anything with his spare time except fap to actresses in tabloid magazines? Cox doesn't seem to think we'd be interested in anything about his characters that isn't lurid. As for the actual resolution of the story, it's rushed, it involves too many elements of cliché and leaves too many unanswered questions. The explanation, for instance, of how Steve's brain was modified to detect the Higgs field just lands with a distinctly unsatisfying thud.
I can offer the book praise for Cox's handling of philosophical matters. A title like The God Particle (especially with the "G" word blaring so enormously from the cover) could easily lead one to suspect another one of these books where the author uses loads of scientific-sounding rhetoric to promote wholly traditional religious beliefs, or something of that nature. Mike and Kelly — he's agnostic, she's Unitarian — have some interesting conversations about the meaning of it all, the methodologies of science versus blind religious faith. And what I admired a lot was that Cox, who has clearly researched his physics and has considerable respect for the scientific method, remains a booster for good science over religion throughout, while managing not to be overtly offensive or confrontational towards religious readers. It would have ben so easy, in this day and age, for a book with a title like this to have been a pandering piece about the wonders of faith and belief (kind of like the ending of Jack McDevitt's Omega). And it seems to me that any mainstream novel with a title like The God Particle published during the Bush adminstration would have probably ended unambiguously with science discovering God, starring a stereotypical bitter atheist scientist dropping to his knees in tears at the climax. Well, thank God (pun intended) we've dodged that bullet here. Cox affirms that, while religious beliefs can provide people with much comfort, what science actually teaches us about the universe always turns out to be much more wondrous.
The God Particle demonstrates that Richard Cox more than has the skill to turn in solid hard SF, if only he didn't feel the need to pile on the cheese. With fewer cookie cutter villains and bad-movie bedroom antics, and more attention to good science, thought-provoking speculation, strong suspense, and storytelling that better resolves the ideas it establishes, Cox might just be able to pull off some real science fiction someday.