Carlos J. Cortes is a Spanish thriller writer whose work is apparently praised far above its actual accomplishment, judging by his ancient astronaut novel A Perfect Circle (2008), which I have just finished reading. The premise is irresistible: Imagine the lost civilizations and jungle setting of Michael Crichton’s Congo crossed with the mysterious, powerful sphere of Michael Crichton’s Sphere along with the histrionic warning about ecological disaster from Michael Crichton’s State of Fear and the intergalactic threat from Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain, all wrapped up in the corporate espionage of Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun. But instead of taking the best parts of Crichton’s books, Cortes has instead paralleled their worst aspects: wooden characters, clunky dialogue, and a tendency to speechify instead of illustrating points through action.
(I did not know when I wrote the first draft of this review that Cortes admitted that Crichton was a major influence on him.)
I wanted to like this book. I really did. In theory, it has everything I could want in a novel about ancient astronauts, lost civilizations, and the slow reemergence of their prehistoric secrets. The story concerns a pointlessly complex interlaced web of American corporate and government interests converging on a remote part of the Congo where a mining company has uncovered a prehistoric and technologically advanced metal sphere that may be the remnants of a lost ancient civilization. The company thinks the technology used to build the sphere could save the world from impending ecological catastrophe. Meanwhile, the CIA tries to infiltrate the operation to…well, that’s never really clear. Government’s just evil, you know.
Many characters are introduced, none memorably. They enact a drama of corporate espionage and government subterfuge that distracts from the genuinely interesting mystery of the metal sphere until the machinations suddenly stop. Cortes appeared to have gotten bored with the book at some point, and all these various plot threats that the reader has been asked to care about are declared irrelevant as the hero, a vacuous cardboard cutout lacking personality or definition, is spirited off to a monastery in Tibet where a lama (whose identity I will not reveal but which will not surprise fans of Lovecraft’s Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath) gives an interminable data dump that concludes the book, essentially summarizing Chariots of the Gods in thousands of words of speechifying that essentially render the entire preceding 80 percent of book moot.
Let me warn you that my next paragraph alludes to the book’s end, so skip it if you don’t want to know.
If the first 80 percent of A Perfect Circle reads like undercooked Crichton, the epilogue parallels the ending of H. P. Lovecraft’s “Nyarlathotep” and makes explicit a threat that should have remained implicit and ambiguous. (I guess that sort of makes the whole book parallel in construction to The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which climaxes with Nyarlathotep’s lengthy speechifying to Randolph Carter about what a stupid, blinkered boy he’s been in the face of powers he doesn’t understand before the whole dream world crashes down around him.)
I’m in the minority, apparently; most critics whose reviews I’ve read praised Cortes for a fast-paced debut novel that was “polished” and “exciting.” I can almost see the point. If the ending hadn’t broken down so spectacularly into an almost completely unrelated ancient astronaut data dump and had instead built toward a thrilling climax, I might have given this book a good review.
That said, I do want to point out the strong influence of ancient astronaut and alternative archaeology books on Cortes. All the greatest hits are here: the Tunguska explosion, the Piri Reis map, the gold “airplanes” of Colombia, the alien hybridization of pre-human simians. All of the von Däniken claptrap is given potted histories derived from ancient astronaut and alternative history books, accepted uncritically as true, and used to build the back story of the prehistoric sphere. This wouldn’t be a problem in a work of fiction—since it’s, you know, fiction—but in the hands of Cortes these pebbles of ancient astronaut lore read like clunky little speed bumps in the narrative, grinding the action to a halt so one character or another can speechify about them.
In an interview, Cortes accepted as fact Victorian pseudo-science claiming that 100,000 pygmies were buried in a Tennessee mound, a “fact” that appears in the book. The story is likely borrowed wholesale from William Corliss, who included it uncritically in his Ancient Man (1978). In reality, after some in Kentucky claimed to have found three skeletons of eight-foot giants, rivals in Tennessee in 1876 offered up the claim of 75,000 pygmy skeletons (buried upright no less) that were mostly less than three feet tall. The New York Times mocked the claim that year, correctly noting that not a single skeleton was ever put forward to prove that any such bones existed. If they did, there would be enough, they said, for nearly every modestly apportioned home in America to have one to display in the living room. It disturbs me that Cortes seems to think such stories are true—and apparently wants his readers to believe them, and other ancient astronaut nonsense, too.
To believers, these fake facts might read as cultural touchstones that enrich the narrative; to a skeptic like me, the obvious falseness of these ancient astronaut and alternative history lies takes me out of the narrative, emphasizing the fictional nature of the story and breaking the suspension of disbelief. The final ancient astronaut data dump, in its thousands of words, lost me completely, and I could only get through it by imagining the speaker as Giorgio Tsoukalos in a Tibetan monk’s robes blathering on about the “aliens.”
A Perfect Circle ends with too much explanation, leaving nothing to the imagination. Where Lovecraft was suggestive in his mysteries and Michael Crichton subordinated ideology to action (well, until late in his career), Cortes tells rather than shows, and make sure no reader, no matter how dim, could possibly miss his message.
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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