Pulpy and awkward adaptation from a Podcast (2/5)
Have you ever read a novelization? I’ve read a few (the Alien trilogy being quite good   ) but two in mind felt quite wooden, awkward on the page: Gipe’s mildly interesting Back to the Future (1985) and Telep’s disastrous Red Planet (2000). Of course, a novelization is a novel written from the screenplay of a movie, but sometimes that doesn’t translate very well and it leaves the novelization, as said, wooden and awkward, unfit for the story to be experienced as a novel.
Finding new SF is a difficult process. I have my entourage of favorite modern authors (e.g., Hamilton, Banks, Reynolds, Bear, Brin, Brown, Robinson, Egan) but I’ve nearly read all their bibliographies. I tend to read novels from the 1970s but sometimes I want something fresh, so I take a chance on a newer novel from the secondhand bookstore. I spotted Ancestor and it sounded like the perfect fusion of SF and horror—a difficult sub-genre to do well. Unknown to me—because I haven’t been in the technological loop for 12 or more years—Scott Sigler is well known for producing the first serial novel via Podcast from 2005-2006 and one year later it was printed as a novel. And like a novelization, the story, again, felt wooden and awkward, poorly adapted from one medium to another (Podcast to novel).
Rear cover synopsis:
“On a remote island in the Canadian Arctic, a group of geneticists has dialed back the evolutionary clock to re-create humankind’s common ancestor. The method? Illegal. The result? A computer-engineered living creature, an animal whose organs can be implanted in any person, with no chance of transplant rejection.
The breakthrough could save millions of lives—and make billions for the company backing this desperate gambit.
There’s just one problem: these ancestors are not the docile herd animals their creators envisioned. Instead, their work has given birth to something big, something evil… something very, very hungry.”
I should pay attention to covers more closely. I would have jerked knees, elbows, jaw and toes if I had read more finely that Sigler is compared to both Michael Crichton and Stephen King. He’s also compared to Richard Matheson (of I am Legend ) and Chuck Palahniuk (of Fight Club ) but I have no experience with those authors. However, Crichton and King are two mainstream writes who I do have experience with and, generally, their writing feels as mediocre as their popularity—where does their popularity stem from, I am clueless.
Rather than feeling like the modern pulp fiction of Crichton or King, Ancestor feels like a James Rollins novel, books of whom I thankfully haven’t read since 2007 when I realized, after three novels, that he was a shit writer (Deep Fathom  is one of the top ten worst books I’ve ever read). After three novels, the writing was so systematic that it felt soulless and then it got worse by being ridiculous.
So, in essence, Ancestor has the bad qualities of a novelization and systematic pulp. There everything you would expect from a pulpy thriller novel: (1) a corporation willing to do anything to get what they want; (2) a scientific experience that goes awry; (3) remote locations that isolate the plot and characters; (4) a healthy dose of helicopters, planes, guns, and explosions; (5) military bigwigs aching to topple the project; and (6) a romance overshadowed by tension. But don’t forget that this is also a so-called science fiction novel, so it must adhere to the clichés of the genre: (1) pedantic scientific lingo, (2) brief orations about the same lingo, (3) obtuse deductions that are always perfect, and (4) features the most gifted—but ultimately flawed—mind.
The entire cast of characters are a bit flat; though some history is provided for each, it feels dull and forced, thereby lending no motivation to their actions… that is, aside from the pivotal character of Liu Jian Da. She’s the one character who makes or breaks the transgenetic project and who also saves them or kills them all. She’s a genius and in the top of her field (see SF cliché #4) but has hallucinations stemming from her work of mixing genes and body parts. Her own motivations, as she later finds out, are beside herself; she understands what she has done but not why she has done it. She watched the horror unfold, knowing only unto herself that this was a big, big mistake.
That big, big mistake was supposed to be a herd of tame herbivores that would grow human organs for transplant. That what she thought she had coded into the genes of the ova, but she later finds out that she coded for something entirely different for reasons she’s unclear of. Either way, the multiplying cells in the cows’ wombs are growing at a ridiculously accelerated rate—something she did code for—but not to the size that they are becoming. Rather than hooved ungulates passively chewing grass, the little monsters within are sharply clawed, have jaw of menacing power, and exhibit a carnivorous appetite while in utero (originally all the sets were developing as twins, but one of them devoured the other). It’s a predictable (based on the synopsis) ruse but aside from the orations of the lingo, this is thick of the novel, this is what you’re paying for. Unfortunately, there very little else to carry it.
In the end, the publisher is pushing this to be a mainstream thriller, so they print enticing quotes from authors everyone knows in order to entice the easy-to-please mainstream reader. Maybe there’s a small resemblance to a “the more of the story is…” but the thriller aspect of the novel distracts from the possible message of scientific ethics. It’s not altogether terrible, nor is it terribly exciting or interesting to read; it teeters on the brink of mediocrity and slides into the chasm of pulp.