April 24, 1989 12:00 PM

by Dean R. Koontz

Say this for Dean R. Koontz: He doesn’t shy away from tackling the Big Questions of Our Time. Here’s a handy summary of Midnight’s theme, which comes near the end of the book: “It was about not just the relatively modern conflict of man and machine but about the eternal human conflict, since time immemorial, between responsibility and irresponsibility, between civilization and savagery, between contradictory human impulses toward faith and nihilism.” Wow! Talk about a topic! Before Nietzsche and Hesse devotees consider transferring their allegiances, it is our duty to report that Koontz’s 53rd novel is not nearly as highfalutin as the above passage might make it sound. Fact is, Midnight is simply a cautionary tale about the computer age in the form of a good (well, not all that good) old-fashioned horror story with a shopworn premise: Wouldn’t human beings be more productive if they could eliminate emotion and function like computers? You know the answer as well as Koontz does, but it probably wouldn’t take you a whole novel to spell it out.

Midnight is set in Moonlight Cove, a picturesque Northern California coastal town where the big employer is New Wave Microtechnology. New Wave’s CEO, a nasty piece of work named Shaddack, is “converting” the citizenry of Moonlight Cove into “New People” by means of injections. But Shaddack hasn’t tested his drug carefully enough—wouldn’t you know it?—and some of the townsfolk who have undergone the “Change” are degenerating into “regressives.” To the rescue comes a disillusioned FBI agent, who links up with a pretty documentary filmmaker, a spunky 11-year-old girl and a wheelchair-bound Vietnam veteran. As always with Koontz, the forces of good are sympathetically drawn characters, and the reader can’t help but root them on as they race against impossible odds. Though the writing is clear and the pace is brisk, there are few surprises. The author has long battled an image as a second-rate Stephen King, the Avis of horror fiction. Yet Koontz’s two most recent books, Watchers and Lightning, revealed an ingenuity and depth of feeling that transcend the genre. Midnight represents a step backward. Like the characters who can’t cope with the Change, Koontz has become, to use his word, a regressive. Let’s hope the condition is temporary. (Putnam, $18.95)

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