The Black Hole by Alan Dean Foster

fosterad-blackholeNovelisations are a thing of the past – the distant past. They were useful in the days when hardly anyone owned a VCR (that’s video cassette recorder, since the term is no longer in common usage). Back then, the only chance of rewatching a movie was to wait until it was televised. So we had novelisations as a means of re-experiencing our favourite films. But since everything is now available inexpensively on DVD or blu-ray, novelisations are an irrelevance.

Alan Dean Foster could write them well. In the case of his treatment of James Cameron’s Aliens, I recall that it gave fans a chance to experience the content of the extended cut long before it was ever released. The movie The Black Hole is a childhood favourite of mine, and I have always been haunted by the strange ending which involved an elaborate journey through heaven and hell. Very disturbing for an eight-year-old to watch. I could never figure out what the conclusion of the movie was trying to say. So I decided to visit the novelisation and see if Foster would shed any light on the matter.

The story begins with a small spacecraft, the Palomino, carrying a crew of five, travelling through deep space in search of life. They come across a long lost vessel, the Cygnus, positioned just outside a massive black hole – remarkably not being sucked in. The Palomino crew investigate. Aboard the Cygnus is Dr. Hans Reinhardt, living with only robots for company. He has invented gravity-defying technology and plans to take his ship through the black hole. The story and characters are reminiscent of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Foster adds a lot of detail that wasn’t in the movie, giving Dr. Reinhardt a much more substantial background. There are also a few incidental things that are different from the movie. And what of the trip through heaven and hell, which clearly took up a significant slice of the movie’s budget? Well, Foster ignores it completely, opting for an abstract ending about unified consciousness. I feel cheated, frankly. I wish I had jumped to the last chapter and read it, instead of investing my time in the whole book. Then again, perhaps I was naive for thinking that a 1979 Disney space opera would have a deeper side.

No Man’s Land by Simon Watson

watsons-nomanslandThis obscure little children’s science fiction novel is another nostalgia trip for me. I recall reading it as part of the English curriculum in Junior High School. I recall that the main thought in my head, during the first read, was, “When do we get see the robot?” Action involving the robot, called Giant, was confined mostly to the closing chapters, and my twelve-year-old brain had little appreciation for the book’s subtler thematic content. Now, as an adult, I probably enjoyed the story far more, precisely because it dealt with real themes: the effects of over-population and industrialisation, where old people are forced into care homes, rural areas are transformed into urban, ancient landmarks are demolished to make room for housing. If anything, the presence of a gigantic semi-sentient construction robot that throws temper tantrums was a bit of a crude addition to an otherwise realistic story.

Alan, the protagonist, is a boy in his early teens, whose family is one of the last to move away from their countryside home. So ends a much-loved way of life for the boy, involving fun and games with other boys in an around the ruins of an old castle known as the Keep. Also brought to a close are Alan’s friendships with his best friend Ben and an old man known as the General. Alan reluctantly begins to adjust to his new life in the city, but when he obtains a motorcycle, the first thing he does is go back to his old home. He discovers that the General is still there; the man stubbornly hid himself when the authorities came to take all the old folks to a care home in the city. Later, the General discovers that there are plans to destroy the Keep, to make way for “progress.” Alan and the General will have none of it, and so they make a plan. But how can one boy and an old man thwart the might of a gigantic construction robot?

Some might criticise this novel for its slow pace and lack of dramatic action, especially when the front cover of many editions displays a robot. But I found it a very pleasant story, with realistic characters that I genuinely felt for. I’m glad I revisited this one.

The Prince in Waiting Trilogy by John Christopher

christopherj-princeinwaitingThis volume brings together three short novels of around 150 pages each: The Prince in Waiting, Beyond the Burning Lands, and The Sword of the Spirits. The saga is set centuries in the future, in a Britain that has recovered from a natural disaster of apocalyptic proportions. Civilisation somewhat resembles the feudal medieval period. Each city, walled off from all others, is individually governed by its prince. And in summer, cities go to war with each other, more for custom’s sake than for conquest. There is no king governing the land. Machines are forbidden, because of the Disaster, and all fighting is done with bows and swords, all travelling by horse. Among people, classes are divided into humans, dwarfs, and polymufs – those unfortunate enough to be born with mutations and whose role in life is confined to servitude.

Each city has its own Seer, who speaks on behalf of the Spirits – strange disembodied apparitations that appear to men in Seance Halls. Luke Perry, a young nobleman of the city of Winchester, is proclaimed by the Spirits to be Prince in Waiting, and it is propesied that he will become Prince of Princes, ruling the whole land. But what are these Spirits? Real beings from a higher plane, or something else? Luke is soon to find out.

The saga takes many twists and turns, involving politics, war, friendship, love, and betrayal. The reader is guided through several strange and unusual cultures, as Luke’s quest take him far from his city, crossing the Burning Lands, a volcanic area separating Luke’s homeland in the south from the land of the Wilsh in the north. As a book marketed for children, the content is really quite grown up. Luke himself is nothing like a child of our own culture, and in some ways I found it difficult to be sympathetic with his cause at times. Culture clash is a prevalent theme, and the reader is invited to observe that a custom is not necessarily right simply because it is one we happened to grow up with. Another theme is the two-edged sword of technology – its benefit to society measured against its use as a tool of conquest, not forgetting its use as a means to manipulate the “primitive” mind. I’m reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

The whole story is not quite as epic as Christopher’s The Tripods, but holds its own as a thoroughly engrossing tale, one that gets more interesting with each subsequent book. There’s enough good story material in here to span one of those big multi-volume sagas that are typically over 300 pages per book, as is the trend with modern fantasy writing. But I much prefer Christopher’s brevity. The Prince in Waiting Trilogy is an intelligent, gritty, violent children’s fantasy saga, and if that doesn’t sound politically correct, it’s not meant to. Recommended for all ages.

Starstormers 5: Volcano by Nicholas Fisk

In this, the final Starstormers adventure, our heroes Vawn, Makenzi, Ispex and Tsu crashland their ship on Volcano. While waiting for their parents to rescue them, they must contend with the planet’s strange semi-sentient vegetation and bizarre animal life. Their “magical” friends from the previous adventure, the veils of Moloch, show up to lend a helping hand. Before long, their old nemesis the Octopus Emperor makes an appearance. The Starstormers, accustomed to running, decide to make a final stand against the ruler of Tyrannopolis.

With the exception of the first volume, the rest of the Starstormers saga has been fairly mediocre, including this final episode. That said, I found myself always captivated by the characters, if not the stories themselves. I think children, who are much more forgiving of plot-holes and unoriginality, will have a great fondness for the saga. It was my own childhood memories of volume 1 that led me to take this nostalgia trip in the first place, and I’m glad I did. I can’t help thinking it might have made a great little children’s TV series, given a chance.

Volcano provides decisive closure to the saga. Farewell, Starstormers. It’s been fun.

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Starstormers 4: Evil Eye by Nicholas Fisk

Once again the Starstormers – four children in a home-made junkyard spaceship – blast off into space to escape the onslaught of the Octopus Emperor. Their ship, barely holding together, crashlands on a planet known as Moloch (interesting term, if you’ve read the Bible). Upon exiting the ship, they find themselves in a jungle filled with all manner of Earthlike creatures, although mutated beyond recognition – and many of them hostile. Makenzi and Tsu take on the role of learning to hunt for food, while Ispex concerns himself with locating metals with which to repair the ship. Vawn starts hearing voices in her head, discovering that there is a vast intelligence in their midst. The Starstormers eventually learn that they are not on the planet itself but have crashed into a doughnut-shaped satellite that was placed in orbit – a structure made by mankind as an environment suitable for life, but upon which life has now run amuck. And the Starstormers must restore balance.

One question occurred to me: if you crash through the outer shell of the satellite into its Earthlike atmosphere, how do you avoid evacuating the entire atmosphere into space? Well, let’s just say, if you’ve read volumes 1 to 3 of Starstormers, Fisk isn’t terribly concerned with major plot holes or wacky science. In children’s literature anything goes; it shouldn’t, but it often does. Is it sloppy storytelling? Of course. Should a writer know better than to say to himself, “Ah, kids never notice that sort of stuff”? Yes, he should. Does it ruin the book? For an eight-year-old, probably not. And so, Fisk gets away with it.

I’ve had fun on this nostalgia trip so far, but with volume 4, I’ve started to get impatient and bored. The strength of the book is in the humourous interactions between the characters. It’s just a pity Fisk couldn’t come up with better story material. I’m on the home straight now, so I’ll probably read the final volume, Volcano, just for the sake of completeness.

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Starstormers 3: Catfang by Nicholas Fisk

There are five adventures in the Starstormers children’s space opera, and it has taken me a over year to locate copies of them all. This third adventure, Catfang, finally completes my set. The books are rare and hard to find on eBay, but judging by the amount of search requests my previous two reviews have generated, they are fondly remembered. I was very pleased with the first adventure, not so enamoured with the second, but something just keeps me reading. In part, I guess I’m revisiting my childhood and completing some unfinished business. But the books do hold a certain silly charm for me, even as an adult. The characters of Vawn, Ispex, Tsu and Makenzi (and not forgetting the robot, Shambles) all have their individual quirks, and the interactions between them are frequently funny.

The plots of the stories require a massive suspension of disbelief. If adventures one and two seemed unbelievable, Fisk really goes into overdrive with Catfang. At the end of book two, the Starstormers have escaped the clutches of the Octopus Emperor and are on the run in space. They now discover a stowaway on board: a cat. They name it Fang. Now, I won’t spoil the story by telling you what strange things the crew end up doing with this cat; all I will say is, “Fisk, what have you been smoking!” Because the antics in this book could only seem logical to an author floating several feet above his keyboard. But you know what? I just went with it and I had fun. And I’ll probably finish the series in due course.

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Starstormers 2: Sunburst by Nicholas Fisk

Volume 1 of the Starstormers saga ended with our heroes, Vawn, Ispex, Makenzi and Tsu, reunited with their parents on the colony of Epsilon Cool. Unwittingly they brought the evil Octopus Emperor – a being made entirely of a dust-like substance – along for the ride. Worse still, we learn that one of the Starstormers is a traitor, secretly in league with the Emperor in return for seeing their parents again.

Volume 2 begins with the Octopus Emperor enslaving the Starstormers and their parents and bringing them to his homeworld of dust. The youngsters manage to trick the Emperor and escape in their home-made spacecraft, but they must leave their parents behind. Wandering the stars, they come across a vast deserted starship. Curious, they dock and board, only to learn that the ship is heading straight for the sun. They panic. Why? Good question. Four children who were smart enough to build their own spaceship are apparently too dumb to realise that they can simply undock and fly away. When they finally do realise and attempt to take-off, they’re too dumb to uncouple the docking mechanism, and they assume the larger ship’s gravity is too strong. Oh, brother.

When the kids are finally on their way again, they head for the Octopus homeworld and make a stab at rescuing their parents. The title, Sunburst, is a reference to the encounter with the ghost ship, but this is really only a mini-adventure of 40 pages occupying the centre of this 120-page book. The rest of the volume is concerned with the Octopus Emperor.

The general gist of what I’m saying would lead you to believe I hated this book. Actually, I quite enjoyed it, and read it in a couple of days. Elements of the plot are poorly thought out, some of the writing is sloppy; Nicholas Fisk may well have written the Starstormers saga purely as a money-spinner. Normally I crucify a book like this. Instead, I find I want to chase up the remaining three volumes. The adventure, as a whole, is a fairly decent pulp space opera for kids. I’m into nostalgia in a big way at the moment, and reading Starstormers gives me the same feeling I got reading the likes of the Eagle comic as a kid. Bite-sized throwaway stories; such things have their place.

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