By Patrick O'Leary

Tachyon Publications


304pp/$16.95/February 2022

Cover by Elizabeth Story

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Patrick O'Leary published the acclaimed Door Number Three, The Gift, and The Impossible Bird between 1995 and 2002. Although he has subsequently published a collection, his voice has been mostly silent from the science fiction community for nearly twenty years, and he admits in his afterword that his new novel, 51 took him sixteen years to write.

The novel opens with Adam Pagnucco driving home from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting when he sees a man collapse on the side of the road. Pagnucco pulls over to help him and is amazed to find that the man recognizes him. It turns out the man is Winston Koop, one time a close friend who Pagnucco hasn’t seen in years. As Pagnucco (whom Koop calls Nuke) nurses Koop back to health, Koop catches his erstwhile friend up on his life since the last time the two men saw each other.

As Koop’s story about Area 51 and the aliens who live there unfolds and Nuke begins to remember their friendship, it is clear to the reader that Koop has the ability to wipe people’s memories of what they have seen. O’Leary incorporates an absolutely chilling sensation that the only reason Koop is sharing his story with Nuke is that his long-time friend will become the next person to suffer from Koop’s strange power.

However, as O’Leary’s tale of Koop’s encounters with people who have themselves encountered the aliens at Area 51 plays out, it slowly becomes clear that the story of an alien spacecraft at Area 51 is a cover story for an even more unbelievable situation. Not only does the story reveal the secret behind Area 51, it also slowly begins to reveal more about Nuke and Koop’s previous friendship, unraveling layers that Nuke had either forgotten or never knew existed.

51 isn’t exactly a character study, although it mostly focuses on Koop and Nuke with a few other characters moving through the novel. Although there is some action, most of the novel is spent jumping around in time as Koop tells his stories in an almost episodic fashion that adds to the fragmentation and the pace at which the reader is able to piece together what may have actually been happening, for there are indications that Koop, who is telling Nuke his story, and Nuke, who is telling the story to the reader, are both unreliable narrators.

The novel introduces aliens who are not quite what they would seem and multiple conspiracies related to them that build not only on the popular concepts of what happened at Area 51, but build upon them in a way that has internal consistency and creates a world that offers its strangeness in a matter-of-fact manner as Koop claims to have experienced it and helped promote the myth while protecting the reality, even if it is at the expense of his own ability to maintain relationships with people who he has known and have been important to his life.

O'Leary has his own voice that has long been missing from science fiction. 51 offers a taste of that voice that many readers will either not know they have been missing, or have forgotten in the nearly two decades since his last novel. Nevertheless, 51 is a unique and welcome addition and a chance for readers to either discover O'Leary or become reacquainted with him, not just through this novel, but by finding copies of his previous novels.

Purchase this book

Amazon BooksOrder from Amazon UK




Return to