Tuesday, September 17, 2002

'Labyrinth' rises to a cliffhanger

By Jim Knippenberg jknippenberg@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        All this for a rock? Ten people dead. A family in chaos. NASA in shambles. The FBI in a tizzy. Physics scholars killing each other. Radiation sickness running amok.

        Yep, all for Moon Rock 66095, harvested years ago on a U.S. moon mission and locked away in a lab at the University of Tennessee.

        Until the start of Labyrinth, that is. Mark T. Sullivan's sixth book is a science-fiction thriller set in Kentucky's Mammoth Cave, renamed Labyrinth Cave for the novel.

        Here, in the most remote part of the cave system, is Moon Rock 66095 - hidden by murderous physicist Robert Gregor, who obtained it illegally three years earlier.

        It seems that the rock possesses rare properties: it's a superconductor (meaning energy passes through with no resistance) and can change substances at the subatomic level (like, oh, maybe aluminum into gold).

        Just as NASA announces it's sending a team into Labyrinth Cave to simulate mining conditions on the moon, four killers, including Gregor, escape from jail and head out to reclaim the rock.

        It's inevitable that the groups should clash.

        The NASA team is led by renowned explorer Tom Whitney, who made a name for himself mapping Labyrinth's tunnels, chambers and galleries. He has his 13-year-old daughter Cricket, a caving veteran since age 5, along as a public relations move. Fine. Until the Whitneys are taken hostage by the convicts and forced at gunpoint to act as guides.

        The rest of the novel is a tale of survival and botched rescues, with NASA, the FBI and assorted physicists above ground trying to track the cavers.

        It's a trip that feels all too real. Maybe that's because Mr. Sullivan knows his cave geography first-hand. He spent a year researching Mammoth Cave and the pit caves of Alabama. But he didn't trek into sections wired with electricity and equipped with picnic tables. No. He went in with Roger Brucker, the Jacques Cousteau of underground exploration, for serious caving.

        “I was petrified, even with Roger. I mean, here we are deep underground 14 and 15 hours a day, learning "cave connection routes' (squeezing through tiny areas between chambers) that are wet, nasty and cramped.

        “And yes, I really did feel like I was in danger. We survived a mud avalanche on a cliff underground. We crawled through spaces so slick and tight it made me want to scream. We free-climbed underground cliffs in the shadows.”

        The research paid off. Labyrinth is so rich in detail and so precise in its description that you feel the cave's chill and oozing mud. Mr. Sullivan brings a journalist's sense of research and detail to the book. He's a former investigative reporter (a science reporter before that) who knows how to take careful notes.

        He also knows how to make a reader chomp down on a fingernail or 10 as Tom and Cricket are repeatedly foiled in escape attempts that are followed by nasty discipline administered by convicts who have already murdered part of the team.

        Add to this a rescue team led by Tom's wife, Whitney, the only person in the world who knows as much about the cave system as Tom.

        Still more complications: earthquakes and rising water have closed regular passages and made once tiny streams impassable.

        The teams are forced into new routes where they dangle over mile-deep canyons, totter along 6-inch ledges and crawl through passages caked with mud and guano.

        All of which might sound harrowing enough to make Mr. Sullivan swear off caving, right? Not a chance. He's on an expedition in Southeast Ohio before launching a 23-city book tour. “It's in my blood now.”

        Mark T. Sullivan will sign and discuss Labyrinth 7 p.m. Wednesday, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Madison and Edwards Roads, Norwood; and 2 p.m Sunday, Books & Co., 325 E. Stroop Road, Kettering.


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