Fright Field magazine shut down before ever publsihing an issue. As a result, my story will not be appearing in it. The editors said that "personal issues" prevented them from working on the magazine and launching it.
Over the past few days, I’ve been recording my impressions of Scott Sigler’s Ancestor as I read through the book. In the first three parts of my review, I’ve covered the first 360 pages or so, and now in the final installment I discuss the last sixty pages.
I wanted to like this book. I really did. I had high hopes. The cover of the Crown edition of Ancestor is suitably graphic, with a monstrous creature peeking out from behind some vaguely technological-looking green squares. The book jacket promised hungry monsters on a rampage. And who doesn’t like rampaging monsters?
However, as I discussed last time, the monsters were rather tangential to the story, which instead focused on the interpersonal conflicts of the staff and owners of a clandestine genetic research lab on an island in Lake Superior. I also hoped that the monsters might make a go of it in the final chapters of the novel.
Alas, while the monsters do show up and wreak some vengeance, they are too few and too late to save Ancestor, which had long since lost me with its relentless focus on the supposedly interesting parts of its cardboard characters’ lives. Even during the height of the monster attack, the book still remains stubbornly enamored of its crazed-psychopath-killer plot, which it seems was the author’s real interest. The monsters seem to function more as window dressing.
It would be unfair of me to give away the ending of the book, but I will make a few observations about the last chapters:
· Am I the only one who thinks that the book dropped a whole lot of plot lines from the first two-thirds? By the end, I wondered why I had been told so many details about characters and situations that turned out to have nothing to do with the story.
· Setting the action on an isolated island worked against the story because the monsters never posed a threat to anyone other than the characters on the island, whom I didn’t care about anyway.
· I know the story is supposed to be about “overwhelming hubris,” but did this have to be spelled out with those exact words? The character who utters them never really got enough development to earn the sobriquet.
· Ancestor was first produced as a podcast in 2007, and I think its style and plotting must have worked better in audio, as weekly installments.
· It became evident that the book is (very) heavily influenced by horror movies, and I’m not sure I’ve read a novel that was a purer translation of a movie into print.
· I can sum up the book in three words, one Roman numeral, and a punctuation mark: Jurassic Park IV: Mammals.
This week I am continuing to post my reactions as I read through Scott Sigler’s novel, Ancestor. So far, I’ve covered Books 1-3, in which an evil corporation and its scientists have created an artificial monster and implanted its embryos into a herd of cows on a remote island in Lake Superior. Now, in Books 4 and 5, the creatures are ready to be born.
Now that I have passed the halfway point in the novel, I will try not to spoil the reading experience by giving away too much of the plot. There are explosions and monsters and lots of running and screaming. That said, I continue to be torn between wanting to like the taut little horror story about the evil monsters attacking people in a remote location and wanting to skip over the long, dull, clichéd sections about the scientists with tangled relationships and the evil corporation whose enforcer is trying to kill off all the company’s liabilities, i.e. everyone else.
In this section of the book, the monsters (which I still refuse to call “ancestors” because they are no such thing) finally emerge from their surrogate mothers and go on a killing spree. This is very good, though the description of their appearance, the details of which I will leave the reader to discover, made me laugh a little rather than feel terror.
But I just can’t get into the other three-quarters of the book. Ultimately, I think the trouble is that the characters are rather flat and one-dimensional, which, of course, is standard for a thriller; but these characters never really command my sympathy, or even my interest, because for the most part they lack personality traits. So far, the only two who really stood out were the submissive Asian scientist, simply because she was an Asian stereotype, and the psychotic Italian-American (but of course) thug killer, whose thugishness contrasts with the milquetoasts who run around talking about wanting to “hit that vaj [vagina]” and other choice sexist and homophobic comments. For all Michael Crichton’s cardboard characters, he always included a few sympathetic ones, usually children or talking animals (twice, I believe), that encouraged the reader to care whether they would survive. Do I care about Ancestor’s horny scientist #1 or hubristic scientist #2? Not really.
I guess my biggest disappointment is that the book jacket promised a unique thriller about hungry monsters on a rampage but the book mostly delivered a series of stock interpersonal and bureaucratic conflicts that, minus the cameos from the creatures, could have come from any number of other books. I still have some sixty pages left to go, and time is running out for the monsters to actually do something.
A few days ago, I started writing about my impressions of Scott Sigler’s Ancestor as I read through the book. Last time, I covered “Book One” and “Book Two,” in which corporate scientists tried to create a genetically engineered creature whose organs could be used for human transplants. Here, in my next installment, I discuss “Book Three,” which takes us to the halfway point in the novel.
In this section, the scientists’ evil corporate masters whisk them away to a remote island in Lake Superior to continue their clandestine genetic research. They have implanted their “ancestors” in a herd of cows and are awaiting the first live birth even as evil corporate and government types conspire to exploit and/or destroy their work.
At this point, I’d like to take small issue with the name “ancestor.” The book implies that the scientists are re-creating an early mammalian ancestor, but in reality they are mixing and matching pieces of mammal genomes and sprinkling in a set of desired traits, so it is closer to the truth to say they are building an “average” mammal than a true ancestor. But this is neither here nor there.
A suicidal Chinese scientist has changed the code for the “ancestor,” turning it into a super-charged predator, because she had no access to sharp objects and thought a killer monster would be the best way to off herself. Now the monster is growing inside the cows. These creatures are so violent, that they are eating each other inside the womb and slicing and dicing their way out.
Though this description makes it sound silly, this part of the book really works. The monsters are frightening, and their actions are the stuff of Hollywood nightmares. It makes me wish the monsters had shown up a hundred pages earlier and eaten the rest of the book because the clichéd corporate-government machinations that surround the monster sections are much less interesting than the creature, and I am sincerely hoping the balance of the book is pure creature horror.
The book jacket claims that Stigler is a “worthy successor” to Michael Crichton, and I must admit that reading Ancestor, I could not shake the memories of two of Crichton’s own books on the subject, Jurassic Park and Next. So far, Ancestor reads a lot like Jurassic Park (remote island, corporate hubris, violent predators, crazy scientists) minus the awe and wonder, but with 20% more science facts and 100% more digs at the poor writing in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight.
My new short story, "A Rustling of Plastic," about a woman haunted by a plastic shopping bag, has found a home. Fright Field magazine, a new horror title launching soon, has acquired the story for its debut issue. More information on the upcoming publication will be posted on my fiction page when available.
I'm going to try an experiment. I received an advance copy of Scott Sigler's "hard science horror novel" Ancestor (Crown) to review, and I thought it might be interesting to blog my impressions as I read through the book rather than wait until the end. A more formal review will run at a later date, in a forum to be determined.
Ancestor began life as a podcast on Sigler's website and iTunes, and it was later published by Dragon Moon Press (2007) on the strength of the podcast's downloads. Now Crown is re-releasing Ancestor in conjunction with the paperback release of Sigler's previous novel, Contagious. I have not read any of Sigler's work prior to this, nor have I listened to the podcast.
So far, I have read through the first hundred or so pages of Ancestor, covering all of "Book One" and "Book Two." For the first fifty pages, I was somewhat confused. A large cast of characters seemed to be conducting research into genetically engineering a creature whose organs could be used in human transplants without fear of rejection. I had a hard time differentiating the characters at first, and only at the end of Book Two did their motivations start to make sense. The whole of the first hundred pages was also hampered by the interpolation of large sections of explanation--all that "hard science"--going through the steps of genetic engineering and defining all the Greek-derived and Latinate language used, which sat in odd and sometimes inelegant juxtaposition with the otherwise colloquial (read: lots of swear words) language of the action sections.
Also, the jacket copy and the press release said that the book was about a human ancestor being recreated and on the rampage. So far, no ancestor, and no rampage. But, I was treated to the thrill of corporate intrigue and dark hints that the U.S. government (and Red China too!) is behind some nefarious doings. In terms of plot, some genetics labs got shut down or destroyed (the evil government again!) when a cross-species hybrid caused a viral outbreak. One team survives (of course) and is being moved to a secure location (evil corporation again!) on a lovingly described giant airplane to continue their secret (and evil!) genetic research.
My favorite part? All the scientists are so burdened with the weight of the theoretical lives their implantable organs might save that they are going mad or vomiting with anxiety when their experiments don't go right. They have lives to save, dammit! And only cows implanted with killer organ-growing creatures can do it! If they don't save all these people (who would die anyway since the theoretical organs wouldn't otherwise exist) it's like they're killing them...because the scientists are so noble! One might wish the US healthcare system operated that way...
Of course it isn't fair to judge a book by the first few chapters. But that's what makes this experiment fun. As I read along and the plot develops, I fully look forward to seeing my initial impressions change. I'll let you know when the killer mouse-like thingy shows up.
A new review of my Hideous Bit of Morbidity ran in this month's Science Fiction Studies. (Unfortunately, the review won't be available online for some time.) In the three-page review, Amy J. Ransom of Central Michigan University praises my book as "a delightful reference work" that shows off my "sense of humor." Ransom especially praises the breadth of my selections and the cleverness of the "fascinating" illustrations that accompany the text.
Ransom does take issue with a few of my choices, suggesting that I should have included more female voices (which I did strive to do; as Ransom notes, there just aren't that many from the period between 1780-1917, and to inclue every scrap written by a woman just because of the author's gendre would distort the historical record). She also would have preferred a more international focus.
The overwhelmingly positive review concludes with the "hope that a companion volume covering the more recent era will be forthcoming." I wish I could second that notion, but the licensing and reproduction fees for more recent work (pictures alone can run $200-$2,000 a pop) make that project simply impossible without a major publisher's backing. I put together Hideous for about $4 in copying fees and $50 in paper, ink, and postage; to license even a single piece for a modern-era anthology would cost more than my royalties for the entire first run of Hideous!
This week I've been reading Paul Jordan's The Atlantis Syndrome, a discussion of the people who believed in Atlantis and the reasons their ideas have been flawed, fraudulant, freaky, or fake. I had been meaning to read the book since it came out in 2001, and in a way it's interesting to approach it now, almost ten years later.
The pseudo-science that preoccupies much of Jordan's book, including Rand and Rose Flem-Ath's theory of Atlantis in Antarctica, Graham Hancock's advanced ancient super-civilization, and the theory of Atlantis in Bolivia, seemed important in the late 1990s and peaked around 2000; but who today pays them the least mind? Ten years ago, these theories commanded major publishing house book deals, network and cable documentary series, and truck loads of money. Today, even the best-selling author of the late "alternative archaeology" boom, Graham Hancock, is no longer with a major publisher (his last nonfiction book was published by Disinformation in the US, and he has now moved on to writing about his lost civilization in a novel--i.e., fiction), and the theories that Jordan worried were a serious threat to the public's understanding of archaeology have melted away.
This is both good and bad. On the plus side, a decline in the popularity of "alternative archaeology" means that fewer patently false ideas are being put out for public consumption. But on the other hand, it also means that publishers and television producers are spending much less time talking about the ancient past. And that can't be good.
Today I received a letter from a concerned reader who was gravely offended at word choice in my article on Sir Laurence Gardner, the historian to the pretender to the Stuart throne, whose historiography, I wrote, slipped into the "dangerous realm of extrarrestrial visitiation."
According to my erstwhile correspondent, this bit of rhetoric was beyond the pale. In a missive of many fonts and sizes, as well as liberal boldface and italics, she complained:
I just wanted to say that I cannot believe how short-brained close-minded a person can be to write something like "he made controversial claims that stretch the power of imagination and slip into the dangerous realm of extraterrestrial visitation" in relation to Sir Laurence Gardner's speech. Dangerous? Seriously? What is dangerous is how programmed you are to keep repeating like a parrot what you have been told. After such statement by the very beginning, it was just impossible to think that the rest of that critique was in any way serious. And you call yourself a scientist of any kind? Just another Illuminati-paid pseudo-scientist... hope someday you de-fossilize your mind.
I wrote to correct my correspondent's misapprehensions:
The phrase "dangerous realm" might literally mean "a land that is perilous to one's safety," but as I trust an educated reader like you will understand, there is no literal "realm" in this sentence in the sense of a land with borders, etc. This realm is a metaphor for an intellectual position. Given that the realm is not literally extant, it follows that the word "dangerous" is meant in its metaphorical rather than literal meaning. Thus, the phrase "dangerous realm," patterned on the standard English phrase "dangerous ground," follows the conventions for such rhetorical devices and refers instead to "an intellectually precarious position; an assertion that cannot be supported by facts." It does not, in fact, refer to any physical danger, real or imagined. This usage dates back centuries. See, for example, "the dangerous realm of epigram" in an article in Arts & Decoration, vol. 8 (1917), the "dangerous realm of definition" in the Columbia Law Review, 8 (1908), "dangerous realm of fancy" in Gem for You (1850), etc. etc.
As I trust, a keen reader such as yourself will have no trouble understanding the metaphorical nature of rhetorical turns of phrase. However, I would be much interested in learning where the so-called "Illuminati" dispense free money for writing articles challenging unpopular historians of extraterrestrial intervention. I have apparently missed this support and would be much obliged if you could forward the information so that I might collect.
Last night the Oscars offered a tribute to the horror genre, which, like all Oscar tributes, must mean that horror died sometime in the past year. Sad. I blame Paranormal Activity.
Also, the New York Times offers a report on defectors who claim that the Church of Scientology is hiding widespread abusive practices, which the church maintains are simply religious rituals. Interestingly, both Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and H. P. Lovecraft were active at around the same time, writing pulp fiction stories about aliens. Both wrote about a cosmos chock full of aliens, and humans who worshipped aliens as gods. Only Hubbard claimed his alien gods were real.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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