Timeline by Michael Crichton

14th century metal helmet
Helmet topped a metal outfit.

In Michael Crichton’s Timeline, an American company has discovered how to exploit the properties of quantum physics to send people back in time to study history. ITC lures archeologists studying a 14th French century site to be time-travel guinea pigs.

When archeology project’s director disappears near where within days the French and English will fight an historic battle, four of his associates are zapped back in time to look for him. In France, the four young people get separated.

Preparing for battle, both armies are wary of strangers who may be spies for their opponents.

Back in the US, the transporter equipment is out of order. Even if it’s repaired quickly, the archeologists may not be saved: Sometimes transportation has nasty side effects.  ITC’s CEO is too busy practicing his spiel to attract new investors to worry about getting the researchers back to 20th century America.

Crichton keeps the American story in hand, but lets the story in France get hopelessly muddled. Besides the confusion of two armies in the field and the noncombatants scrambling to get out of the way, Crichton adds secret passages, coded messages, and deep dungeons until he turns his extensive research into farce.

Timeline by Michael Crichton
Alfred A. Knopf. ©1999. 450 p.
1999 bestseller #5; my grade: C-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Star Wars® The Phantom Menace (book)

a hooded, humanlike red face with black tiger markings and red eyes stares at readers The first Star Wars® film, written and directed by George Lucas, debuted in 1977 was a block buster hit. It spawned additional Star Wars® films, gave birth to a science fiction category called space operas, and made millionaires of Star Wars® merchandizers.

In 1999, 22 years and three Star Wars® films later, Lucas produced a fourth film that’s a prequel to the Star Wars® series. Terry Brooks made Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace into a novel of the same name.

The novel’s first chapter’s first paragraph is one word: Tatoonine.

The rest of chapter 1 is about a pod race. Pods are some kind of mechanical vehicles.  A nine-year-old slave boy named Anakin Skywalker, who hopes one day to fly with the Jedi Knights, is cheated out of winning the pod race. Anakin and his mother are slaves owned by Watto, a “pudgy, blue Toydarian” who speaks Huttese.

I have no idea what happens after that.

Reading The Phantom Menace without having seen the film is like trying to decipher King Lear by consulting a printed copy of the alphabet.

Readers, you have been warned.

Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace
by Terry Brooks
Ballentine Publishing. ©1999. 324 p.
1999 bestseller #4; my grade: D-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Lost World (novel)

bones of dinosaur head look menacing
Something has survived.

In Michael Crichton’s novel The Lost World, scientists find genetically-cloned dinosaurs living on a small volcanic island.

Crichton made a name for himself by writing fiction that sounds like reportage, but The Lost World doesn’t even sound like reportage.

The story begins believably enough, with mathematician Ian Malcolm speculating at a seminar of scientists about why dinosaurs became extinct. The verisimilitude disappears when two middle school geniuses get involved.

Before you can say Jurassic Park, Malcolm, paleontologist Richard Levine, field biologist Sarah Harding, applied engineering professor “Doc” Thorne, and Thorne’s foreman Eddie Carr are on the southernmost of Costa Rica’s Five Deaths island.

And the middle-schoolers, who stowed away in the science team’s exploration vehicles, are there, too.

Although there’s plenty of believable detail, such as jargon-rich conversations between scientists, only the most gullible of readers would believe The Lost World is anything but fiction written with Hollywood in mind.  There are high-speed chases, literal cliff-hangers, and blood and gore enough to fill a giant popcorn box.

But for the less-gullible, Crichton includes musings about the history of science, the scientific process, why the dinosaurs disappeared, and the rise of mass culture signals the end of the human species. That material is better than the story.

The Lost World by Michael Crichton
Alfred A. Knopf. ©1955. 393 p.
1995 bestseller #02; my grade: B+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Tommyknockers: a novel

The spaceship’s green light glows against the black dust jacket
An otherworldly  light glows

The Tommyknockers is one of the horror novels for which Stephen King is famous: Its descriptions beg to be turned into visual formats.

It’s no surprise that Tommyknockers was made into both a TV miniseries and a film.

The story is about a writer who literally trips over a space ship that eons before had crashed with enough force to bury most of it in the Maine woods.

Something makes Bobbie determined to uncover the ship, despite signs that the remains are lethal.

Bobbie’s friend and ex-lover, Jim Gardener, intuiting that Bobbie needs him, pulls himself out of his alcoholic stupor and hitch-hikes to the rescue.

Jim finds that the minds of the entire community of Haven, Maine, are controlled by a sinister force.

King churns out episode after episode that are variations on one pattern: The residents of Haven are turning everyday objects into lethal weapons running on batteries.

They’re unstoppable because they can read the mind of anyone who wants to stop them. Visitors to Haven are left as piles of puke, blood, and lost teeth.

Jim very much wants to stop the murder and mayhem.

Chapters of the Tommyknockers would have been interesting presented as short stories. The book, at 558 pages, seemed interminable.

Tommyknockers by Stephen King
Putnam, © 1987. 558 p.
1987 bestseller #1; my grade: C-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Contact by Carl Sagan

Earth is in the foreground, deep space in the background
Hello? Are you speaking to us?

Having become “the face of space science” in 1980 through his 13-week PBS series Cosmos, Carl Sagan exploited his fame with  a novel about the first contact between extraterrestrial beings and humans.

Contact‘s main character is scientist Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, who runs a network of radio telescopes listening for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

One night her team discovers what appears to be a numerical, coded message coming from the star Vega, 26 light-years away.

America’s scientists, politicians, and military scramble to respond.

They have to bring other nations in to help collect the message that’s being broadcast when America is turned away from Vega. They also need help to break the code.

Sagan uses the novel to talk about his hot-button issues: religious people who discount science, fellow scientists who grandstand, and politicians who don’t understand or adequately fund scientific research.

Sagan fails, as many science fiction writers do, to make his characters much more than personas invented by a marketing team intent on selling dish detergent.

As a result, his novel self-restricts to an audience of science fans, leaving novels fans wishing for some characters with human emotions.

Contact by Carl Sagan
Simon and Schuster. 1985. 432 p.
1985 bestseller #7 ; my grade: C

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Return of the Jedi (storybook)

Cover of the storybook of Return of the Jedi has photo of Luke Skywalker from the film
Luke Skywalker with sword

Return of the Jedi by Joan D. Vinge has two strikes against it before readers even crack the cover.

First, it’s a book based on an action-fantasy-adventure movie packed with special effects.

Second, it’s a sequel to two previous storybooks, The Star Wars Storybook and The Empire Strikes Back Storybook, both of which were based on action-fantasy-adventure movies packed with special effects.

The storybook doesn’t have any special effects.

When readers to the first page, Return  strikes out.

Here’s a paragraph from page 1:

An Imperial Star Destroyer moved toward the monstrous superstructure of the half-finished Death Star. Darth Vader, the Dark Lord of the Sith, was on board the destroyer. He had come to check on the progress of construction at the battle station. He boarded a shuttle and flew toward the waiting Death Star.

Don’t those lines sound like something read aloud by a fifth grader in a special ed class?

Return of the Jedi does have some good points. It’s short—about 60 pages—and every page has one or more stills from movie.

Unfortunately, the photos have no captions, so they are meaningless to anyone who didn’t see the movie.

If you didn’t see the movie, get the DVD instead of reading its appalling storybook.

Return of the Jedi:
the storybook based on the movie
By Joan D. Vinge
Random House. © 1983. Unpaginated
1983 bestseller #1. My grade:  D+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

2010: Odyssey Two

Dust jacket foreground for “2010” is a spacecraft far from earth; background is a womb-like object in space.
A baby in the womb?

The novel 2010: Odyssey Two is a follow up to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Although Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001, Stanley Kubrick’s movie version was released before the novel was published and thus became “the right” version.

Clarke accepted the inevitable, writing a sequel to the movie version.

People who have seen the movie will know the background. People like me who haven’t will be hard pressed to make any sense of the novel.

As best I can make out from 2010, in 2001, a Discovery expedition failed because the ship’s computer system, HAL, refused to obey orders. A crewman, Dave Bowman, was left stranded in space, the rest of the crew killed. Bowman’s last words were, “My God, it’s full of stars.”

A new joint US and Russian mission is being sent to Jupiter. They hope to recover data on the abandoned Discovery before the Chinese, already in space, can get it.

The Chinese, however, aren’t after the data: Their aim is Europa, where they say they have found life.

Life is what isn’t in Clarke’s novel. It’s a story for folks who sleep with a slide rule on their bedside tables.

None of Clarke’s characters is as human as HAL.

2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke
Ballantine Books, 1st ed. ©1982. 291 p.
1982 bestseller #9. My grade: C

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial is extra-terrible as a book

Space craft barely visible in night sky on cover of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Space craft barely visible in night sky

Making a movie version of a great book rarely turns out well. If E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, is anything to go by, turning a great movie into a book is a disaster.

Even people who didn’t see the movie know the general outline of the story: A being from outer space who comes to earth to gather botanical samples, misses the space ship trip home, and is befriended by an American kid, 10-year-old Elliott Thomas.

E.T. gets Elliott and the other two Thomas children, Gertie and Michael, to get him the additional parts he needs to build a transmitter from the Speak and Spell so he can contact his space ship and arrange to go home.

The entry of an UFO into American airspace hasn’t gone unnoticed.

All the resources of America’s government are on the trail of the extra-terrestrial.

They’re no match for the juvenile Dungeons & Dragons fans on bicycles who rush E.T. to the landing site just in time to catch his return flight.

The movie’s special effects made the silly story an entertaining fantasy suitable for children of all ages.

The book renders the story too ridiculous for any reader.

(The website cracked.com ranks E.T. one of the five worst movie-into-book translations of all time.)

E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial
by William Kotzwinkle. Based on
the screenplay by Melissa Mathison
G. P. Putnams. © 1988.  246 p.
1981 bestseller #1. My grade C

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The House on the Strand lacks curb appeal

In The House on the Strand, an historical novel meets a sci-fi novel.

Medieval Cornwall coast scene on novel cover
This bestseller mixes ’60 drug culture into history.

The two don’t get along well.

Dick Young gladly accepts the offer of longtime friend’s Cornwall estate, Kilmarth, for his family for the summer. Dick and Magnus were in university together and remained close until Dick’s marriage.

Dick’s wife, Vita, disliked Magnus from their first meeting.

Magnus, an academic researcher, has secretly stumbled upon a drug that takes people back in time.

Magnus wants Dick to take it and report his findings.

The first dose transports Dick back the Kilmarth environs in the 14th century. Each time he takes a dose, he becomes more interested in the historical figures than in his own era.

When Magnus is found dead, apparently after attempting to commit suicide, the story twists to a halt.

Daphne du Maurier provides diagrams showing who married whom, but readers need a guide to who is sleeping with whom to make sense of the historical part of the book.

The 20th century portion makes more sense, but even though du Maurier has Dick narrate the story, both plots feel detached from him. Sadly, Du Maurier’s characters have no more personality than figures in someone else’s nightmare.

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier
Doubleday, 1969. Book club edition, 308 pp. 1969 bestseller #10. My grade: C.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni