Move over Clive Cussler. Make room for Craig Bieber
Note to readers: What follows is part book review, and part insight into striking it rich in Alaska’s oil industry.
A couple of months ago Alaska novelist Craig Bieber asked me to review his latest novel, “Moon over the Midnight Sun.”
I wasn’t planning a flight anytime soon, so I was reluctant to say yes.
The only place I read fast-paced suspense novels with macho-macho males, criminals and violence is on an airplane. I hate flying, so I always bring a mind-numbing book to divert my attention from the fact I am thousands of feet above the ground in a pressurized metal tube with zero control (by me, anyway).
Cozy mysteries are not distracting enough during those white-knuckle moments when turbulence strikes. So, I pick up the latest Clive Cussler novel and bury my nose in it until we de-board.
Cussler’s scenarios are preposterous, his characters predictable, and he uses way too many adverbs, but his plots are compelling and I usually come back to earth, figuratively and literally, at about the same time.
I couldn’t, in good conscience say no to Bieber, however, because I believe in supporting local writers, even though my impression of his previous books, which I had only skimmed, was that they were Cussler-like thrillers.
Former M-I Swaco Alaska manager and Petroleum Club of Anchorage president, Bieber’s latest novel offered an additional incentive- it focuses on the state’s oil industry, which he was a part of for 30 years.
So, I said yes.
I am glad I did. Bieber is a superb storyteller.
Fast-paced, plenty of machismo, but darn good story“Moon over the Midnight Sun” is fast-paced and not lacking in machismo, but it is so much more.
The plot is believable, the characters so real you remember their names days after you’ve finished the book, and the setting - mainly the North Slope and Anchorage - is richly portrayed.
Bieber’s familiarity with Alaska appears in numerous tidbits, both interesting and factual, throughout the book. There are no “herds” of moose, stars in a summer sky or rigs drilling for oil in Valdez.
More importantly, the Alaska trivia is cleverly inserted in the plot and dialogue, and does not interrupt the forward movement of the story.
Burton Marts’ strategy similar to Bill Armstrong’sBest of all, Bieber understands the inner workings of the oil business in Alaska, including how entrepreneurs make their fortunes, especially in recent years when the state discourages traditional land speculation in favor of companies that work the geology and find a way to fund exploration and development.
The story takes place in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, but the strategy that Texas oilman Burton Marts employs in “Moon over the Midnight Sun,” is similar to Denver oilman Bill Armstrong’s tactics since he entered Alaska in 2002.
Armstrong hires geoscientists and landmen who have retired from the majors in Alaska and, with their guidance, buys oil leases the big companies have explored but dropped (the state of Alaska limits how much exploration acreage any one entity can hold at a time). He applies the latest technology, subsequently teasing millions of barrels of oil out of new developments.
As one character in the story says, it takes “a lot of money and big balls” to make it in Alaska’s risky oil business. Marts, like Armstrong, has both.
(There are other entrepreneurs, or wildcatters, as they are often referred to, who have made good money in Alaska, but there are more who have lost their investments.)
Bieber: no inside knowledge of Kandik oil potentialWhen a novel contains an abundance of accurate information, small discrepancies between it and the real world are things I itch to correct. Such as the pay and savings of the rig hands in this book. They were way too low, especially for that era.
And while you might hit pay dirt using Armstrong’s strategy on the North Slope, you probably should order a geologic assessment of the Kandik basin if you’re looking to pick up leases there.
Speculators made a killing on Kandik oil leases in “Moon over the Midnight Sun.”
While it fits well in the story, Bieber says he has no inside knowledge of the oil potential of the east-central basin. Federal and state geologists rate Kandik petroleum potential as low but, that said, there is at least one experienced and respected Alaska geologist who thinks the Kandik is worth a closer look.
Exploratory oil wells have been drilled in the basin, although none in recent years. Bieber was peripherally involved in one of them in the early 1970s, which is why he chose to use Kandik in his book, albeit with a fictitious Mississippi oil company doing the drilling.
He calls it “the well from hell.”
Drilled by Louisiana Land and Exploration, Bieber filled in as a mud engineer for two weeks on the well. This was his experience: “One of our guys had some personal problem and had to have some time off, so I went out there. … We ended up losing the well. They told me what they were going to do and I told them, ‘you can’t do that, you’re gonna lose the well.’ So, we got on the phone with their people in Louisiana - their company man up here and me. He told them I was against (what they were planning). … They all laughed. They went ahead and did it anyway, and we lost the whole hole.”
The Kandik story in Bieber’s book helps move the plot forward. It also shows readers how land speculators often made good money in Alaska (and occasionally still do) by picking up leases adjacent to acreage bigger companies hold, or are about to lease.
Saylor saga continues with youngest sibling
Burton Marts is not the lead protagonist in Bieber’s book. That honor goes to another memorable character, Chris Saylor, the youngest sibling of Beth and Nick Saylor, who starred in Bieber’s first two books.
He also does well in the oil business up here.
Unlike his elder siblings, who oversee the mega-rich family’s freight and logistics empire, Chris dropped out of college to become a roughneck on a North Slope drilling rig, which is under contract to Burt Marts’ oil company.
The book opens with Chris and fellow roughneck Rusty Ferraree taking their lunch on the quiet end of a drilling pad, enjoying a sunny summer day.
Chris, “blond, good looking and muscular,” is called “pretty boy” by other roughnecks.
Rusty, a more seasoned rig hand, has thick auburn hair, outweighs Chris by 50 pounds and at 6-feet 4-inches tall, is several inches taller.
He starts out talking rough, making fun of the stories circulating around camp - stories Chris gives some credence to - that attribute the frequent problems they are having with the well to the fact they are drilling into an Alaska Native burial site (extremely unlikely in real life).
In the end, they both quietly agree there is something mystical, even magical, about the Arctic.
The conversation between the two men reveals hidden depths to their personalities, their dreams for the future and the fact Rusty has a degree in geology, which means he could be “riding a desk in Anchorage” and making a lot more money, but he doesn’t want the responsibility, he tells Chris.
We also learn of a most unusual and hilarious challenge Rusty has with women that Chris teases him about in future chapters.
Chris, we discover, “wants to make some kind of impact” on the world, separate from his family.
Like many Alaskans, Chris and Rusty can’t be stereotyped. Once you think you have them pegged, you find out your roughneck is a romantic or your playboy, a mystic.
In the doghouse for six yearsHis understanding of life on a drilling rig is another instance in which Bieber’s experience is valuable background for this book.
Early in his oilfield career Bieber “sat in the doghouse on a drilling rig for six years … and you hear everything,” he says in a recent interview with Petroleum News.
According to Schlumberger’s oilfield glossary, a doghouse is the “steel-sided room adjacent to the rig floor, usually having an access door close to the driller’s controls. This general-purpose shelter is a combination tool shed, office, communications center, coffee room, lunchroom and general meeting place for the driller and his crew.”
Side note: Oilfield terms are used liberally in this book, with definitions provided at the bottom of the page on which they appear.
Bieber had ‘lots of fun’ with RolyIn addition to Marts, Saylor and Ferraree, the book’s cast of characters includes Raleigh Boyd, whose friends call him Roly, as in roly-poly because he weighs 300-plus pounds. Bieber says he had a lot of fun with this character, the only one he created from scratch, having never met someone like him.
Roly is a “fixer,” a solver of problems for (almost) anyone who can meet his rates.
His clothes are worn and dirty and he lives in a rundown apartment, but he gives $100 tips for everything, including one-block cab rides.
His hangout is a downtown Anchorage bar where he “holds court” (does business) seven days a week.
Roly is known as the “man that can” on the streets of Anchorage and his customers include high level officials, oil executives and street thugs.
Another interesting character who plays a significant role in the story is Jacob Amarok, president of an Anchorage-based company that is owned by the Shublik Native Village Corp. on the northwest side of the North Slope. Shublik is reminiscent of Nuiqsut in the real world.
Part Yup’ik Eskimo, but mostly white, Jacob is the son of Miki Amorak, the progressive head of the Shublik Village Tribal Council who wants oil development on 200,000 acres of the Native-owned land that is sandwiched between producing oil fields.
Jacob, who holds a master’s degree from Stanford University, seems more at home in the white man’s world of Anchorage and Seattle, but has a difficult time resigning himself to oil development on his Native ancestors’ lands.
He has an experience in Seattle that leads him to Roly, lending more suspense to the novel.
The real villain an anti-American billionaireEven though Roly is not above commissioning murder, the real villain of this story is the man who controls the highly secretive installation on (and under) Native land that is leased by Marts.
The back cover of “Moon over the Midnight Sun” describes what this facility holds as an “unknown and powerful force.”
A former U.S. Navy installation, the facility is “controlled by a zealous, anti-American billionaire … it falls to Chris and his company to stop him and his destructive plans,” it further says.
Remote compounds are nothing new in Alaska, nor are military installations of all sizes, so that’s believable as is, surprisingly, the technology Bieber describes.
He first learned about real-life technology similar to his creation from his son while they were playing golf.
“Out of the blue he asked me, ‘Hey, Dad, have you heard about this HAARP thing?’ He explained a little bit about it … then we went back to the house and got on the Internet and researched HAARP and it was a real thing. And I thought, man, I could build a story about something like this,” Bieber says.
And so he did.
Much of what is written about HAARP is penned by conspiracy theorists, but there is enough factual information to spook the average person.
Basically, it’s an entirely new class of weapons.
Important to this book, a few years ago the U.S. military joined with the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, to build a prototype for a ground based “Star Wars” weapon system in a remote area of Alaska. As I understand it, the facility is no longer in operation.
HAARP is supposedly designed to zap the upper atmosphere with a focused and steerable electromagnetic beam. It is basically an advanced model of an “ionospheric heater.”
I’ll leave it at that. Read Bieber’s book and then compare it to what you can find on HAARP from reliable sources.
In closing, I’d like to thank Fred Longcoor, who Bieber quoted at the end of every chapter, the quotes taken from the unpublished, “Fred Longcoor’s Book on Life.
- KAY CASHMAN