Other Science Fiction
Sphere by Michael Crichton
Warning: There are significant spoilers in this review.
This could have been a truly great science fiction novel. The protagonist, Norman, is a psychologist who thinks he’s been brought to a crash site by the FAA to help survivors only to learn that he is actually being involved in possible first contact situation. Early in Norman’s career, he accepted a top secret government grant to explore first contact scenarios. He hadn’t taken the idea seriously when he wrote the report, but now he is suddenly face-to-face with the probability that alien’s exist and have come to earth.
To complicate things, the alien spacecraft they have discovered is 1000 feet under the surface of the Pacific Ocean in the middle of nowhere. As a result, the contact team—four civilians with military support—will be operating under even more tension than a first contact would normally impose. Crichton builds the tension excellently through each section of the novel until the team finally gets to the space craft they’ve come to explore. In addition to the external issues, there are growing personal conflicts within team and trust issues with the military who are clearly not fully sharing their knowledge with the civilians. Finally, a storm moves in on the surface that forces the navy to retreat from the area totally isolating those beneath the surface.
Things really start jumping when the team discovers that the space craft appears to have been built in the future by the United States, but also contains an apparently alien artifact—the sphere of the title of the novel. One of the civilians, mathematician Harry, succeeds in entering the sphere, but can’t remember what he found there. Then strange things start happening. Sea life—at first benign—starts to appear outside the underwater habitat—squid, shrimp, jellyfish. And then the first of the crew dies horribly.
While everyone is reeling from this loss, the crew is contacted by video monitor with a code that appears to come from an alien intelligence. When they break the code, they find a childlike curious entity that gets angry when they want to stop talking to converse among themselves. Shortly thereafter, a giant squid attacks the habitat and more members of the crew die. Tension among the survivors keeps ramping higher. The habitat is fragile and is becoming unusable after multiple squid attacks.
When only three of the civilians remain alive, Norman figures out that all of the unusual events (alien contact, squids, etc.) occurred after Harry entered the sphere. He hypothesizes that the sphere gave Harry the ability to manifest material objects—basically anything he can think of. Norman further theorizes that Harry’s subconscious has caused the attacks by the squid and the contact with the alien. Harry is a danger to them. So he shares this theory with Beth (last remaining civilian scientist besides Norman and Harry) and they attack Harry, drug him and decide to keep him unconscious until they are rescued.
This appears to be the end of the book except that there is roughly 20% of the pages left. Manifestations continue to happen and Beth (who has been acting increasingly paranoid throughout the novel) tries to convince Norman that he also entered the sphere and that he needs to let her drug him so that he is not a danger to anyone. When he refuses, she grows enraged and tries to kill him, leading Norman to find evidence that Beth also entered the sphere. In self defense, Norman enters the sphere himself and now all three individuals have the power to manifest anything they can imagine.
This is where a superb novel breaks down. Beth has placed explosives all around the habitat to protect herself. She is actually suicidal (without consciously recognizing it) and Norman is worried that she subconsciously wants to die and further wants to kill everyone with her. Norman accidentally triggers a twenty-minute timer on the explosives but never seems to realize that he has the power not just to turn the timer off with his mind but to get rid of the explosives all together, just as Beth has the power to blow up the habitat without any explosives at all. There is also a major effort to get everyone into a minisub because of the explosives and the damaged habitat, but again, the habitat can be fixed with a stray thought.
At the end of the novel, the three survivors decide that knowledge of the sphere is too dangerous and that they will all decide to forget the sphere ever existed and lose their powers to manifest. They also decide on a new story about an underwater disaster at a plane crash site that killed all the dead crewmembers. They enact this and everyone in the world now believes the new story—proof that the whole explosives confrontation was ridiculous.
It’s really unfortunate that Crichton didn’t think through his
manifestation power. This is a good book, but this ending weakness seriously mars
the overall quality of the novel. The last sentence, however, goes a long way
to redeeming the entire storyline.
Invasion at Bald Eagle by Kris Ashton
This promising tale of alien invasion in a sparsely populated Colorado town in the 1960s has a lot going for it despite taking a swerve toward the parody, Sex Zombies, in the first third of the story. Bald Eagle is a tiny little place with one hotel, a two-man sheriff’s department, a weekly newspaper, a nuclear plant and a hippie commune. Life is pretty tame in Bald Eagle despite the fact that the hippies enjoy protesting nuclear power and the manager of the facility freaks out every time they arrive with their signs. Bert, the sheriff, is pretty laid back and sensible about his job, at least until he discovers that his daughter, Sharna, who is supposed to be in Denver has actually joined the commune and its free love lifestyle.
While the sheriff tries to figure out how to stick all the hippies in jail without forever alienating Sharna, strange things begin happening at the commune. A silver egg plummets from the sky into the lettuce patch and “stings” the hippie who picks it up. The next day he begins to act stranger than usual as does the woman he sleeps with a short while later. This is where the Sex Zombies parallel comes in as the “strangeness” spreads like a venereal disease in the free love community (and later in the larger area of Bald Eagle).
I don’t want to give too much away, but things really start to heat up when Derek, the leader of the commune, gets undeniable evidence that his fellow hippies aren’t just sick, but have something sinisterly wrong with them. He runs for it, eventually encountering the sheriff who locks him up and is uninterested in stories revolving around strange eggs from the sky and the changes they have wrought on a hippie commune. Yet within a couple of days, the sheriff can’t pretend that the problems growing in his town (a large number of disappearing persons and more of the silver eggs) are all originating from hippies taking bad drugs and he is forced to deputize Derek, plus the head of the local nuclear plant and a journalist in an attempt to save his community. The federal government also gets involved but they seem more intent on quarantining the town and wiping all the infected out than in helping people.
This is where this novel goes from being merely entertaining to gripping. These unlikely defenders of humanity have to come up with a plan to save Bald Eagle—both its handful of uninfected residents and those who have already been contaminated by the eggs. Their plan is a little hokey but frankly, with the pressure they are under, it’s totally believable they would try it. One of the strengths of the story is how Ashton deals with this effort and the extraordinary pressure on these men as they try to save everyone—especially the handful of very young kids who seem to be immune to the contagion. People you come to like die painfully and frankly I quickly reached the point where I couldn’t figure out how anyone was going to survive the crisis.
If you enjoy a good mystery turned horror-thriller, you’ll like Invasion of Bald Eagle. I know I did.
Valley of Despair by Chris L. Adams
It takes one short chapter of this novella to convince you you’re in for a thrill ride. German WWI pilot Erik von Mendelsohn has crashed in the jungle and is trying to survive a group of apes that have taken the wrong kind of interest in him. Desperate to escape, he reaches the edge of the jungle near a high cliff face and the apes who are in hot pursuit…refuse to follow him past the tree line. It’s a simple idea very subtly conveyed in the story, but it set all the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. These totally aggressive and fearsome animals won’t follow our hero as he attempts to climb the cliff face to get away from them. It’s difficult not to ask yourself—what are the apes afraid of? What the heck is Erik getting himself into? And the tension just keep ratcheting higher from this point forward.
Erik is a well thought out character—he’s smart, a bit impulsive, and a little too curious for his own good. The supporting cast is equally interesting. I don’t want to give away the plot, but the people Erik finds and gets into trouble with are equally brave and capable—and the problem they have to confront is better thought out than a lot of “lost world” adventure-style stories I’ve encountered. In short if you want a fast-paced well-developed adventure story with great characters, you should give Valley of Despair a try.
The Cosmos of Despair by Chris L. Adams
In this fast-paced sequel to Adams’ brilliant Valley of Despair, Erik and the hundreds of people he’s rescued from the alien invaders of the last book discover that while they’ve been trapped in the valley the aliens took over the rest of the planet. Worse than that, because of some weird time issues that were central to the last story, hundreds of years have passed separating our hero completely from the world of his birth. Erik and company are immediately enslaved by the aliens (technically they are re-enslaved, but the aliens don’t know this at first). A few select humans who pass a test conducted by some sort of high tech scanning device are given tasks to do for the aliens (Erik is trained to be a navigator) but the rest are destined to become food or fuel for the spaceships. It’s a horrible situation with no realistic chance of escape, but Erik has faced long odds before and immediately begins searching for the path to freedom for himself and those who are depending on him.
I don’t want to give away any of the many surprises this book contains, but I do think it is worth stressing that there were a lot of plot twists I didn’t anticipate. There are also some excellent moral dilemmas such as deciding if it is better to live as a slave or die trying to set others free. If you enjoyed the first story you will definitely want to read this sequel.
Days of Future Past I: Past Tense by John Van Stry
This is a fun, fast-paced novel, with a couple of good personalities driving it. Paul Young is a lieutenant in the Air Force about to be drummed out of flight school for reasons he personal reasons that have nothing to do with his skill at flying. Major Riggs is the man who’s helping Paul’s enemies get rid of him. Then a “goddess” intervenes kidnapping both people. She tells Major Riggs he’s been chosen to save the Navajo because he’s half Navajo; she has no use for Young but he’s in the jet with Riggs and so he gets pulled into the future too. They are quickly found by the Navajo where Riggs tells them that Young is a slave he is giving to the tribe. Young and Riggs didn’t get along well before this betrayal and their relationship quickly plummets even further.
Riggs makes the perfect jerk in this story. At every single opportunity he outdoes his last dastardly deed. Young’s a pretty good hero who fairly quickly finds out that one of the gods thinks the others made a big mistake counting on Riggs and he wants to use Young as a backup to save the world. The difference between the two men could not be more clear and this makes them great antagonists for each other.
After Young escapes the Navajo, we start to get a much better understanding of this postapocalyptic future. It includes magic, dragons, fantasy races and a sort of Mad Max style human society. The government of the one non-tribal organized community we really get a good look at is very cleverly constructed and helps to drive home that the America we know is long gone. The fight scenes are well done and I liked the supporting cast. I think Young’s two girlfriends are especially well developed, even if I think they got interested in him a little too easily. Overall, characterization is a major strength of the story.
If Van Stry happens to be reading this review, I have a request. Could we have a map please? I found the terrain very difficult to visualize. Young leaves Navajo territory going east but somehow ends up on the west coast by the end of the story after traveling quite a bit and going around a new inland sea. I’m quite sure Van Stry has a clear understanding of the geography but I had a lot of trouble following it. A map would totally resolve this problem.