What can it mean when a novel advertises itself as ''Speed meets The Hot Zone'' other than that the literary world has now successfully co-opted Hollywood high-concept-speak? ''Speed meets The Hot Zone'' is what John J. Nance's new, hyped-toward-best-sellerdom thriller, Pandora's Clock, quite accurately claims as its parentage, but the line might as well say ''movie meets book,'' and the offspring is as muttlike as you might imagine. Clock is not yet a movie, and not quite a novel it's a 357-page blueprint for the miniseries it's destined to become, and it feels incomplete on the page.
Even though the filmed version does not exist yet, the one that will unspool in the reader's head is easy to review and in fact, it's pretty good. Stalwart airline pilot James Holland (call him Harrison Ford) and his hotheaded cocaptain Kevin Bacon I mean, Richard Robb are flying a 747 full of Americans home from Germany for Christmas (which is like Die Hard meets Die Hard 2) when it's revealed that one of the passengers may be infected with one of those lethal, kills-you-quickly-and-disgustingly viruses that is not, repeat, not the one in Outbreak but is just as bad. As Holland frantically searches for a country that will let him land the plane, we learn that the CIA, Arab extremists, and incompetent Bavarian scientists may be involved.
Much more important, we get to know the people on the plane in true Irwin Allen-disaster-movie tradition: the cute old honeymooners, the hunky skier, the pretty German girl, the jittery ambassador, the weirdly quiet woman who you know is going to be trouble, the hypocritical televangelist, and the attractive young ambassador's aide who wants to help the divorced captain learn to love again (he needs the help, since he's ''disturbingly sensual...though he [carries] an air of sadness''). Nance's reverence for the classics (by which I mean The Towering Inferno and Earthquake) is such that he even provides a ''dedicated and intense'' young researcher who has been warning everyone for years that this could happen. (''Stick to the point, Doctor!'' replies the evil functionary. ''I'm aware of your crusade back at the FAA.'') Just add George Kennedy, and you can shout ''Action!'' and roll camera.
Shouting action is what Clock does best. In fact, Nance's characters shout everything. ''Remember the training!'' flight attendant Brenda tells herself. ''Hijacking's a ridiculous idea!'' muses the ambassador. ''Incredible!'' mutters (yes, they even mutter loudly) an air traffic controller. When they're not talking, the men in Pandora's Clock do a lot of clenching of their jaws, and peering suspiciously over the tops of their half-glasses; at one point, a preoccupied man even ''rub[s] his temple to expunge the memory,'' a feat that, if it works, surely deserves a ! or two at the end. It's a fine line between Airport and Airplane (the official title of which, it should be noted, is Airplane!), and Nance crosses it when he writes such inadvertent sparklers as ''They were alive after all! But...were they?''
Fortunately, Pandora's command of plotting is much surer than its ear for the human voice. It's a good, propulsive, reasonably unpredictable story that lives up to its main aspiration which is to keep its ticking-clock melodrama moving so quickly that readers will not question the occasional gaping plot hole, infelicitous line, or teetery characterization. Jittery fliers will find this a satisfyingly masochistic read, though it's probably not the book they should take on their next long plane trip. Whether a novel should strive to be something more than a really good Lethal Weapon movie is a question worth discussing but not one particularly germane to the pleasure anyone will take from Pandora's Clock. When it comes with actors and pictures, it'll probably be worth a B+; right now, it's a B-.