Science Fiction Though the Decades

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

1983: The Tartarus Incident (Greenleaf, William)

Science, horror and human error (4/5)
From April 30, 2010

From the front cover: "Trapped in the catacombs of a decaying planet, five desperate space travelers are stalked by the only thing in the universe hungrier than Man." This sentence is a very enticing mini-synopsis but mostly describes the plot condition in the last half of the novel: the horror part of this science fiction/horror novel. The first half of the novel is an original and well-written piece of science fiction. If it were to have a similar mini-synopsis, it would read: "Stranded in the desert of a searing planet, five auditors are coping with the only thing in the universe more dreadful than Taxes." That dreadful thing is the long running basis of the plot: the accumulation of human error.

The rear cover actually provides a good synopsis of the first half of the book:
"'Somebody get us the hell out  of...' This was the last transmission received from Oliver McElroy's audit team. What could never happen... was now a terrifying fact. The five-person crew of the UNSA audit ship jack-a-dandy had simply disappeared during a routine materialization from Graywand station to the planet Sierra. It was the end of their comfortable routine, and the beginning of the interstellar nightmare know as The Tartarus Incident."

I originally gave this book a three-star rating, but I've upped it to four stars because the horrific catacombs in the last haunt me to this day. I'd say the contrast of science and horror was very vivid and provides a long-term thrill!

The style of writing is nondescript but lends itself to be easy on the brain, where it can easily be read in the span of 3-4 hours or within two days of on and off reading. The first half of the short book is the inventive science fiction bit. Greenleaf has the sense to create a novel propulsion unit for the ship, which inevitably goes haywire and strands the crew on the arid planet. This half is full of tense scenarios and tricky problem solving. Intermixed, irritating and interrupting the easy flow of reading are random childhood memories of some of the crew. These insights don't cast a new light on any of the fairly generic crew of five auditors. The second half is the horror section of this book, which takes place in an underground labyrinth. The maze of passageways is detailed but still lacks a defining characteristic: it's dark, it's full of creepy crawlies, and it's dilapidated. The cavernous abyss between the two halves of the book is laden with an eerie foreboding, outlined here in a sequential manner: "The dead city waited under the sun-glazed air." (64) "He sat there a moment longer, feeling the hot breath of the city all around him. And suddenly, for no reason, he was afraid." (65) "[...] with the blazing city all around him and his mind touched by the presence of those who had built it, he could see himself with painful clarity." (66-67)

The resulting tectonic shift of the plot is rather annoying (but stands the test of time) as Greenleaf had an excellent, classic sci-fi novel on his hands as the plot itself was problem-solution based. Sporadic science-based endeavors are included in the second horror half, easing up on the intensity involved down below in the arid catacombs of the scorched planet of Sierra. All in all, it's not such a bad novel as it's a quick and easy read but the story still sticks in your mind due its trying circumstances, terror filled darkness and the realization that sometimes situations are out of our hands because of accumulated human negligence.

No comments:

Post a Comment