Walking through the Valley of Death; A review of Adam Baker’s “Impact”

Impact is the fourth in Adam Baker’s Revenant apocalypse series.   The ‘zombies’ here are caused by an alien plague falling to Earth with the wreckage of a Russian space station. This plague cause a metallic cancer to spread through the body, metal tendrils and spines infiltrating and spreading through the host organism, causing hideous mutations and eventually taking over the brain and obliterating the personality, creating a metal creature sheathed in rotting flesh, and joined to a hive mind.

In this book, mankind is losing the end-game, in fact has as good as lost.   Mankind is reduced to a few besieged pockets of resistance.   Here the crew of the Liberty Bell, an old B 52 bomber, take off from a Vegas landing strip to nuke a site in Death Valley, as ordered by Top Brass, for reasons unknown. The plane is ageing and unfit for purpose, and does crash, maiming, killing, or leaving stranded in the desert, the members of the crew. The survivors re-converge on the wreckage, to find that something is watching them, and there appears to be something deadly swimming through the sand in the ground beneath their feet.

The main protagonist is LaNitra Frost, a resourceful and very tough soldier, a heroine in the classic Baker mould. In fact, in all the novels in this series, a woman has been the lead heroic protagonist. Not all the men are weaker and duplicitous; Baker is not trying to make some silly gender point. Amongst the only hope in this increasingly bleak saga is the goodness and heroism shown by some of its characters.

The novel is written with Baker’s staccato and visceral prose. Pared down and fast moving, it’s ideal for the very tough and action packed stories he tells. It’s reminiscent of James Ellroy but it’s not a lame copy, Baker has made this style his own.

The novel has great set pieces and unflinching descriptions of violence and trauma to the human form. The infection is frightening creation, horribly violating in what it does to the human form, giving new reaches to the idea of a ‘living death.’ There’s a sense of mystery as to what the site the B 52 crew were on their way to nuke. The hive mind? Some kind of ‘alien boss?’ I won’t spoil it here.

It is also fun spotting the movie references. Tremors, most un-dead apocalypse films, Predator, Aliens, are some (I think) of the references here.

If there are disappointments, they lie with the sense that there is very little new here to readers of this series; gutsy heroine, horrible medical experiments and research on the infected, a remote location that contains both agoraphobic and claustrophobic elements, a focus on military hardware and procedure, horrible injury and violent death. Fine, readers of the series would want all this from any new instalment of the series. But the book lacks anything that moves the saga forward. It is the same stage of the End-game as the previous novel. We don’t really learn anything new about the infection (other than it may have been here in antiquity). We are at the same near extinction stage at the end, no closer to victory or complete defeat.

So the writer is close to treading water with this series, and he needs to close it, or move it forward with some major developments. Still, this remains great fun, a fast paced grisly read.

 

A review of Rick Yancey’s “The Fifth Wave”

I picked up a copy of this in the library and intrigued, read the blurb. There is a clear reference to an apocalypse on the blurb but what kind? Undead? Plague? That ambiguity was enough to hook me. I’m glad it did.
This is a wickedly effective page turner that takes the well used sci- fi trope of alien invasion and gives it a decent, scary workout. The story centres on seventeen year old Cassie Sullivan, her family and friends as an Alien mother-ship appears overhead and throws the world into a fever of terrified speculation. It is noted with dread that the Aliens are resisting all attempts at communication. And then the attack ‘waves’ begin and if you want to preserve the surprise I had in finding out what these are, read no further. But I won’t blow what the final ‘wave’ is.
The first wave is ‘lights out,’ a huge EMP pulse that robs the world of power and sends planes falling from the sky. The second, ‘surfs up,’ are huge metal spears thrown down from the stratosphere that impact on costal tectonic weak points, drowning the coasts of the Earth. The third, ‘pestilence,’ is an Ebola type virus spread through birds, and the fourth, the use of sleeper entities implanted in certain human minds at a pre-natal point. These turn the hosts against their fellows.
There’s a terrifying, satisfying logic to the ‘waves.’ Without power we are weakened. An attack on the coasts drives us inland and packs us tightly together, where the pestilence will be horribly effective. The fourth wave destroys trust in the surviving communities, causing humanity to splinter further. And the Fifth….well that’s just as logical and clever, and I won’t spoil it here.
The fourth wave takes up the biggest part of the book, with the other waves only being sketched in retrospect. This works to drive the story forwards. The fourth wave has the longest work, the other waves being over relatively quickly.
The story is told through different viewpoints, but it is Cassie’s that takes most of the narrative and the lead. And what a sassy, engaging lead she is. She has the ultimate in dry and sarcastic wit that provides laugh out loud moments amid the chaos. She’s winningly vulnerable and resourceful. I warmed to her so much that, no matter how gripping the rest of the action, I just wanted her to return.
I did not realise I was reading a ‘young adult’ targeted piece of fiction until about half way through. This is really for the Hunger Games and Twilight market, right round to the fact that it’s a trilogy, begging to be filmed. That the book easily crosses over to a more adult market as is the case especially with ‘The Hunger Games’ is shown by how it didn’t dawn on me until the half way point that this was the case at all. What gave it away to me is perhaps the weakest part of the novel; a central romance between Cassie and the enigmatic Evan Walker, the details I won’t spoil here. But it felt very Twilight and Hunger Games and it is not a good thing I suddenly realised I was reading YA fiction. The burgeoning romance between them is the baggiest section of the book. And there’s also (horrors) hints of a love triangle towards that also echoes Hunger Games.
Justin Cronin, who endorsed this work, did the whole cross over thing better with his ‘The Passage’ novels, which are stronger in tone and to this day I would never pigeon hole as YA.
That’s not to say there isn’t dark stuff here, really strong themes that are cleverly done. There’s genocide, mass killings of communities and the brutalising indoctrination of child soldiers described in some detail. Also, the novel does keep you on your toes, and keeps a nice ambiguous tone about which side a certain military force lies on until the closing quarter.
On the whole this is a cracking read for genre and non genre readers whether young or older adult. The cross over thing has been done better, but on the whole this is an ideal summer beach read.

“Alien: Out of the Shadows” by Tim Lebbon; a review.

Someone said recently, was it Richard Dawkins, that the universe is not hostile, only indifferent.  Ridley Scott’s initial terrifying vision with his film ‘Alien’ was to give us a universe that was both hostile and indifferent to man.  A supreme expression of such a universe was the evolutionary apex of a hunter-killer, as designed by H R Giger, a nightmare poster child of the horror in the dark.

Since that film several different directors have given us their various takes on this nightmare, battling studio interference and the law of diminishing returns.  We’ve also had novelisations, novels and graphic novels, all seeking to expand this nightmare universe and its protagonists, and take it in new directions.

Tim Lebbon’s novel ‘Out of the Shadows’ is a direct sequel to Scott’s first film, and is reasonably close to the vision and ascetic of that film.  It has huge, grimy industrial ships, and a crew that seem to be more ‘truckers in space’ rather than Han Solo heroes.   Other echoes to the original include an awe inspiring alien space-craft, artefacts and remains of another alien race, a rocky, wind-blasted planet, and the machinations of ‘the Company,’ Weyland Yutani.  And, of course, it has those terrifying Xenomorphs.  It also nods to the universe of the sequels, with references to the Marines, and even some of the “what Gods made these” philosophising the oddly misfiring Prometheus gave us. 

But it’s also, thankfully and most importantly, a rattling good story and read in its own right.

Ship’s engineer Chris Hooper, aboard the deep space mining orbital ‘the Marion,’ is jolted from his workaday routine when two shuttles from the surface make a frantic dash back for the Marion, pursued apparently by something that terrifies them.  This ends with a violent crash, and the lives of the Marion’s crew are now plunged into the horror of an alien infestation, as they also struggle to work out the fate of the miners on the planet’s surface, and the trajectory of their ruined, falling space-station.  They then rescue a life-boat, the Narcissus, containing the sleeping form of one Ellen Ripley, and the true horror of their situation begins to dawn.

The story is well paced, using cinematic set pieces and suspenseful build-ups to violent confrontation as the crew unravel the mystery, and Ripley’s story joins theirs.  I enjoyed particularly the feeling that all the sequels were being forgotten, and the whole Alien story was being reset to the point that ‘Alien’ finished.  It certainly has the tighter, grimier focus of the first film.  However, connivances towards the end point at efforts to slot this into the franchise, which felt a disappointment.  The sequels got so stupid in the forced continuity of their story arc; a big refresh would have been welcome.

I also enjoyed the reintroduction of Ash, as a homicidal AI programme bent on the continuation of his ‘find and return’ mission of the first film.  Peering out balefully from cctv cameras and monitors, he outdoes 2001’s HAL as the omnipresent psycho computer with a cultured and mannered voice.  His transmissions to the Company punctuating the narrative are well done.

There is real tension, jarring shocks and the merciless ‘offing’ of characters you would expect from an Alien story.  The other alien race is interesting, and there are similarities to the ‘Space jockeys’ of the first film, before Prometheus muddied the waters.  The mines are an effective setting, both claustrophobic, with dark corridors, and agoraphobic, opening up into massive chambers containing derelict spacecraft (and lots of Aliens).

What doesn’t work so well?  A few of the ‘set pieces’ seem weirdly ineffective, like the perspective is too distant. The initial crash is like this, being viewed through a scanner that in turn looks through a ship’s window.  Some of the Alien attacks also feel rushed.  Also as mentioned, the contrivances at the end of the story that force it into the wider movie franchise are clever but unconvincing.  I was so hoping for the boldness of an approach that would reimagine the whole sequel-scape.

But these gripes aside (as someone says in original movie “quit griping”), this is an above par Alien story that re-introduces the sub-space chills of that very first encounter.

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