Logan’s Run: Last Day by Paul J. Salamoff

salamoffpj-lastdayThis comic adaptation of Logan’s Run is much more faithful to William F. Nolan’s original novel than the 1970s movie and television series. Gone is the City of Domes, along with the Carrousel ritual. The whole world is run by a computer called the Thinker. After a global apocalypse, this computer brings humanity back from practical extinction, but with a particular set of rules to ensure a balanced population. Everyone is scheduled for termination at age 21. Go quietly, or you will be hunted down by an elite police force equipped with high-tech weaponry able to deal out extremely painful death. These are the Deep Sleep Operatives, or DS-Men for short. Logan-6 is one of these.

The story delves into Logan’s childhood training, and some earlier back story about how the world ended. Familiar characters make an appearance: Francis (Logan’s friend who is forced to hunt him down after he runs) and Jessica (Logan’s runner companion). Like the original novel, I was pleased to see Logan remain the villain for the larger part of the story – something that was dispensed with in the movie and TV series. Where this adaptation differs substantially from both the novel and movie is the conclusion, where it treads new ground (which I won’t spoil). I actually have a soft spot for the oft criticised movie version of Logan’s Run. I liked the religious overtones of Carrousel – a population blindly believing in “renewal” through death simply because that’s the only viewpoint on offer – one they’ve been indoctrinated with from youth. In truth, I like the book, the movie, the TV series, and this new adaptation. All bring something slightly different to table, but the overall theme of a brainwashed society is central to each. Do you dare to question the norms of the world you grew up in?

This is a beautifully written and illustrated adaptation of Logan’s Run that will delight existing fans and possibly make a few new ones. It had a run as a six-issue comic from Bluewater Productions. These are now available as a graphic novel. Even better, there is a follow-up series entitled Aftermath, which examines Logan and Jessica’s life after the collapse of civilisation left in the wake of the Thinker’s destruction. I’ve read a couple of issues of this so far, and I’ve been really excited by the direction of the story. I wish I had the full set.

Judge Dredd: Necropolis by John Wagner

wagnerj-judgedreddnecropoliThe “Necropolis” story has been reprinted in several forms, as a two-parter and as a single volume. To really appreciate the story, you need to be familiar with a seemingly unconnected prequel called “The Dead Man” (which was crafily not billed as a Judge Dredd story in its original printing in 2000 AD, progs 650-668). Also it benefits you to be familiar with Dredd’s prior dealings with Judge Kraken, another Dredd clone. Also, “A Letter to Judge Dredd” in which Dredd is deeply moved by letter from a young person whose father was killed. Finally there are several short strips called “Countdown to Necropolis” (progs 669-673). Then we get down to “Necropolis” proper – a story that spans 26 issues of the comic (progs 674-699).

As if four Dark Judges who can’t be killed aren’t enough trouble, we now learn that Judge Death has three sisters. The Sisters of Death use a Psi Judge as a bridge to our dimension, enabling the whole Justice Department to be psychically controlled. Mega-City One is now totally at the mercy of the Dark Judges, who proceed on an unparalleled slaughter the likes of which has never been seen before in the pages of Judge Dredd. Dredd himself, having encountered the Sisters in the Cursed Earth, returns to Mega-City One to find the place in utter ruins. He manages to team up with some surviving cadets and Psi Judge Anderson. Together they attempt to overthrow the Dark Judges’ reign. They face insurmountable odds, and even if they win, Mega-City One will never the be the same again.

The story doesn’t sound like anything special, but it’s the backstory that injects it with so much potency – for one, Dredd’s reason for being the Cursed Earth (which I won’t spoil). The best place to read this story properly is in Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 14, where you will get all the extras, or in the two-volume edition published by Titan (2003), where you’ll get some of the extras. Avoid the single-volume edition published by Hamlyn (1998), as it fails to include most of the prequel material. This is deservedly one of the most popular and most remembered stories in the ongoing saga of Judge Dredd.

Empty World by John Christopher

A teenage boy loses his family in a car crash and is taken in by his grandparents. Some months later he loses so much more – everyone. An unusual disease breaks out in Europe, first affecting the old, but then causing rapid ageing in the young. Attempts are made to contain the disease, but due to the fact that the symptoms don’t show up until days after infection, it spreads across continents, eventually wiping out the world. There are a tiny fraction of survivors, all in their early to mid teens – an age where the immune system and the development of the human organism are in a sort of optimal balance.

This sounds like a fairly typical apocalyptic tale, but the strength is in the telling. It’s the story of one teenage boy and his struggle to survive and find companionship. This may be marketed as a children’s book, but there is nothing cotton-wooly about the events that transpire. You would be hard-pressed to find a children’s movie as harrowing as this. Christopher portrays life with a keen sense of realism, examing loss, the hostility of life, and the relationships between young people that have been freed from the restraining guidance of adults. In the end, what wins – our humanity or inhumanity? A short, strong novel – one of my favourites by this author.

Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien

Back in school, we read (or were forced to read) various novels as part of English class. Mostly, I found them incredibly boring, and a drudgery. How Many Miles to Babylon, I Am David, Of Mice and Men, etc. – books that were, for the most part, too sophisticated and intellectual for a boy in his early to mid teens. These book choices no doubt contributed to me being unable to view reading as a pleasurable past-time. That all changed when Z for Zachariah became the class novel. I credit this book as the catalyst that got me into reading, and I’ve never looked back.

Ann Burden lives in a secluded valley with her family, when a nuclear war happens. Her mother and father head out in the car, to see what’s going on in the neighbouring town, and they never return. Beyond the valley, all is dead and lifeless. For some reason, the valley is untouched by the nuclear fallout – not a miracle, but a meteorological mystery. Ann now lives alone, thinking that she might be the last person in the world – except for the farm animals. Then one day, months later, she sees a column of smoke in the distance – a camp-fire. Someone is coming. Who is this mysterious traveller? How can he move about unaffected? And will he be friend or foe?

What a terrific set-up for a rivetting story. This is the third time I’ve read Z for Zachariah. It’s still great. Athough marketed as a children’s novel, it’s a very grown-up story that doesn’t pull its punches. At times, I wanted to shake Ann, for her excessive fear and her inability to be ruthless when something needed doing. But this only served to illustrate how much the author really drew me into the story, and how well he was able to portray the predicament of a sensible, moral girl whose whole world had been turned upside down.

Interestingly, I learned that the author died while writing the final chapter of this novel. His family finished it for him, and the book was published posthumously. Highly recommended.

The Taking by Dean Koontz

After reading so many deep and taxing non-fiction books lately, I happened to be in the mood for some pulp fiction. What better than a good ol’ unpretentious B-movie-style alien invasion story. That’s what I thought Dean Koontz’s The Taking was supposed to be. I’ve read enough Koontz to know his penchant for melodrama, but I thought I could stomach it, as long as the story was interesting.

We begin with a woman, Molly, waking up in the middle of the night, witness to a bizarre torrent of luminous rain. She quickly learns that this is happening everywhere in the world, and she fears that it is the precursor to something more dreadful. A Lovecraftian apocalypse ensues, filled with otherworldly flora and fauna, and events so bizarre that reality itself appears to be coming apart at the seams. While many of the happenings seem more occult than extraterrestrial, our protagonist makes much of the famous Arthur C. Clarke quote about how the technology of a sufficiently advanced alien culture would be indistinguishable from magic.

As an author myself, there are certain well-known missteps in storytelling that are best avoided. Koontz, to my astonishment, blunders right into them. The first one applies to science fiction and fantasy, where liberties are frequently taken with the laws of physics: any story that fails to establish its own rules about what is possible and impossible is going to be devoid of suspense, because literally anything can happen at any moment to help or hinder the protagonist. In the worst examples of this (and this is the second storytelling blunder), some unexpected happening occurs to get the protagonist out of a tough spot, rather than the protagonist using his own ingenuity. And would you believe it? Good grief, Koontz relies on this very thing. In fact, the heroes walk their way through most of the book, protected by some unseen otherworldly force.

The protagonists are typical Koontz archetypes that he has used over and over again in his books: impossibly noble-minded pure-of-heart characters with ne’er a perverse thought crossing their minds, tainted only by some dark event in their pasts that they have had to overcome. Who but the most self-deluded can relate to these melodramatic caricatures of human beings? Furthermore, the characters glide through through their extreme circumstances with barely a dent to their sanity. It’s like reading Lovecraft with all the madness removed; it doesn’t work.

The book is just over three hundred pages long. It should have been less than two hundred. As it stands, the prose is utterly dripping with unnecessary flowery metaphors and pretentious twaddle. Here’s an example from the beginning of chapter forty:

The mystery of evil is too deep to be illuminated by the light of reason, and likewise the basement of the church, while no more than twelve feet in depth, presented to Molly a blackness as perfect as that you might find gazing outward to the starless void beyond the farthest edge of the universe.

Please! It’s one thing to write artistically; quite another to try and show off. At times, I found myself speed-reading through Koontz’s metaphorical rambles. Oddly, I don’t recall any of his other books being quite so heavy in this regard.

[SPOILER ALERT!] I don’t normally do spoilers, but this one’s too juicy to pass up. Reviews of this book promised a surprise ending. You’ll never guess what it is. After telling a story that looks like the Devil unleashing the kingdom of hell upon Earth (while the author attempts to convince us its an ET invasion), the big reveal in the final pages is … oh, it really was the Devil after all! And so, an already sub-standard War of the Worlds retelling takes a final nose-dive into pseudo-Christian quackery.

In fairness, I experienced a certain degree of enjoyment reading this book, but frankly, a writer of Koontz’s experience ought to know better than to indulge in all the things I’ve mentioned. The fans deserve more. These days, he appears to be little more than a hack writer, churning out book after book, sometimes two per year, using the same old tired formula. Well, this is one reader exiting the Koontz train. No more, thank you.

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

We begin with a scenario that resembles life in an 18th or 19th century country village, namely Waknuk in the land of Labrador. People live in cottages, get around on horses, farm the land. But soon we are given clues that this is not a tale from the past, but the future. The religion of this land is a version of Christianity that emerged from the ashes of a global apocalypse generations before. This was presumably a nuclear war, given that the chief religious preoccupation is the preservation of the “True Image.” Anything born with a genetic aberration is labelled an abomination in the sight of God, and is killed, including human babies.

David Strorm, the protagonist, is one such abomination, except he slipped through the net unnoticed due to the nature of his mutation. He is one of a small group of people who are able to communicate with each other mentally over distance. They all know that if they should be found out, they would be hunted down and killed. To survive they would have to run away to the Fringes – badlands where mutants of all kinds live. When the inevitable happens, only one thread of hope remains – another telepathic voice, very faint, calling from far, far away.

When I first read this book, aged fifteen, the anti-religious subtext was almost completely lost on me. Now, as a thirty-eight-year-old ex-Christian, this tale has more relevance to my life than ever, especially regarding the dangers of group-think and the need to protect oneself from the power of the religious herd, for the great “crime” of being different.

David’s Uncle Axel is an interesting character. He is a retired sailor, someone how has seen much more of the world than most people, and so he regards the small-minded religious people around him with quiet disgust. To me he represents the person who dares to educate himself beyond the confines of his upbringing. Uncle Axel is, symbolically, the old individualist who is wise to the dangerous ways of the herd. As David’s friend and confidante, he stands apart from the others adults as the one force of genuine good amid the callous hand-me-down standards of the world around him.

The book gets really brave in its closing chapters, where Wyndham uses the story to convey a message about the nature of existence as a game of survival of the fittest, where nothing is ever in stasis. Mutation, far from being a crime against nature, is the driving force of progress, and the idea of a true finished image of God in man is, by implication, a farce. The closing chapters will make or break the book for some readers, as Wyndham is conveying harsh truths about life that few are willing to face.

For me, this is perhaps Wyndham’s finest tale, topping even The Day of the Triffids. It’s also one of my personal favourite novels of all time.

Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley

Ape and Essence begins in a movie studio, with a script accidentally falling from the back of a trolley full of manuscripts (what authors would call the slushpile) on its way to the incinerator. Two movie executives pick up the screenplay and they are so moved by the story that they seek out the writer, a man named Tallis. Finding him deceased, this part of the story ends (about a quarter into the novel). The rest of Ape and Essence is the mysterious script itself, presented to the reader without modification or editorial comment.

When I say “script”, it’s really a bit of a curious script-novel hybrid – not nearly as sketchy as a screenplay, which is good from a reader’s point of view. We are transported to a world where apes act like people, but in a manner far more surreal than Planet of the Apes. Tribes of apes go to war against each other, each one keeping its very own Albert Einstein on a leash. The symbolism is obvious: the apes allude to the stupidity of mankind, going to war with nuclear weapons and bringing about universal destruction.

Around page fifty I was getting frustrated with the book’s strangeness, but it’s at this point that the story shifts to a post apocalyptic 22nd century and stays firmly grounded therein for the remainder. The world has been devasted by nuclear and chemical warfare. Only one country remains unscathed, for no other reason that it was of little strategic importance during World War III: New Zealand. And the New Zealanders are now making their first sea voyage to rediscover America. Among the crew is our protagonist, the botanist Dr. Poole. Not long after they arrive on shore, Dr. Poole is kidnapped by natives and the rest of his crew are forced to abandon him. He finds himself all alone in a society very unlike the Christian one he came from. The citizens now worship Satan (whom they call Belial), essentially because, given the state of the world, Satan appears to be in charge. Mutation has caused biological changes in mankind. Women typically have three sets of nipples, and mating takes place during a week-long orgy once a year. Anyone who has yearnings to mate all year round is referred to disparagingly as a “hot.” Dr. Poole establishes a place among these “savages” due to his knowledge of botany and the benefits he can bring to the civilisation. Much of the book concerns Dr. Poole as a fish-out-of-water, undergoing changes due to his environment.

Huxley is known for putting a lot of subtext in his novels, although it’s hard to gauge exactly what points he’s trying to make at times. I guess this novel fits in with the mid-20th century preoccupation with the end of the world by nuclear war. It reminded me a lot of John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, only more wacky. Wyndham presents Christianity-gone-mad, whereas Huxley goes for Christianity-gone-Satanic. However, it must be said that Ape and Essence loses none of its charm for its strangeness. I had a great time with this novel. Particularly eyebrow-raising (when you consider the era that it was written) were the sexual elements of the story. Nothing too gratuitious, but the very inclusion of an orgy in which the protagonist participates was quite daring.

I enjoyed this novel particularly as a clash of societies, where the rightness of one’s own views are challenged by submersion into an alien environment, and where something that you might call “humanity” manages to emerge, despite the pressures of both paradigms. I very nearly gave up at page 50, before the real story got rolling; glad I stuck with it.

The American Book of the Dead by Henry Baum

What is every father’s worst nightmare? There might be any number of specific answers to that question, but the one which Henry Baum delves into is this: imagine surfing the net and encountering a porn video of your teenage daughter. That’s what happens to Eugene Myers in The American Book of the Dead. You could run a whole novel on this idea alone, but as it turns out, this aspect of the story is merely a precursor to something much bigger in scale. After the inevitable confrontation between father, mother and daughter, Eugene goes on the hunt for whoever made the movie, starting at his daughter’s school. This ends in violence, with Eugene suffering a head injury. And here’s where the real story starts. He begins having vivid dreams about people, dreams which end in a voice telling him the names and addresses of the people he is dreaming about. He investigates these locations and discovers that these are real people. But he has no idea what he is supposed to do about it, or why he is dreaming about reality, or what significance these particular individuals have. Meanwhile, another story is going on in another part of the USA: President Charles Winchell is being tutored by his father, past President Herbert Winchell, on secrets involving religion, aliens and the approaching World War III. The trouble is, Charles is a fundamentalist Christian, despite his father’s claims of religion being merely a tool of manipulation. Charles begins to wonder if his own father is the Antichrist.

Okay, that’s all I’m going to say about the story, which might leave you wondering, “What the hell is this book actually about?” But the wackiness of it is part of its unpredictable charm. I’ve a feeling that some people are going to love it and some are going to hate it. I’m something of a conspiracy buff, and I have some strong spiritual views, so I found the whole dynamic of the Winchell story to be rivetting: the wise father, carrying the world on his shoulders, having no idea of the religious insanity that is brewing inside his son’s head, as he tries to instruct the younger President on secrets that are about to affect the future of the whole planet. The Eugene Myers side of the story was also very well done. The author has a real knack for brutal honesty when it comes to describing the innards of a person’s head. This honesty also comes with a dash of humour at times. Ultimately, you see parts of yourself in the character, and it really brings him to life.

I don’t want to say too much about where the novel heads. I’ve mentioned the Antichrist, World War III, and a man who dreams about real people. Suffice it to say, the Eugene Myers story and the Charless Winchell story eventually come together. I had no idea how the book was going to finish until the finish line, and the ending was very satisfying, casting fresh light on an intentionally confusing first chapter.

If you have an interest in government conspiracy, alternative spirituality, the paranormal, I think this is a novel you’ll really enjoy (and if you’re a fundamentalist Christian, you’ll probably be offended). The story packs a little something extra for the conspiracy theorist than for the mainstream reader, especially on the theme of culling the human population. The American Book of the Dead is too wacky to be taken entirely seriously, but it does have a serious undercurrent, in the same way that John Carpenter’s movie, They Live, is on the one hand a dumb action movie about some butt-ugly aliens who secretly rule the world, and on the other hand it’s an expose of how asleep and enslaved people are and why the world is this way.

The American Book of the Dead is a self-published novel, but please don’t let that put you off. The book is skilfully written and edited to pro standards. Baum is a credit to alternative publishing. The story is totally fresh. I haven’t read anything like it before and I give it an unhesitating recommendation.

Faith Awakened by Grace Bridges

Faith Awakened caught my attention because it’s a post-apocalyptic novel set in Northern Ireland – specifically Bangor, which is only about forty miles from where I live. It’s not often the Emerald Isle gets the sci-fi treatment. This is also a Christian novel, and those who know me from my personal bloggery might think this would automatically make it right up my street. News that something is “Christian fiction” actually has the effect of making me feel quite ambivalent, because I’ve had the experience of reading some pretty bad Christian novels, dripping with melodrama. I’m pleased to announce that Faith Awakened avoids this trap to a large extent, which is no easy thing because this is essentially a love story.

Grace doesn’t pull her punches. She is not afraid to kill off about six billion people from the get-go, at the hands of a deadly virus. Then, rather than step into the “cosy catastrophe” genre, things get even worse for the tiny band of survivors. It seems that their mysterious immunity to the virus is temporary, as the virus mutates. There seems to be no hope for the last remnants of the human race … until the discovery of a cryogenic research laboratory. The survivors theorise that it may possible be go to sleep for many years, experiencing a virtual reality dreamworld, with your body safely sealed off from infection. Then, many years later, the virus will have died, and it will be safe to emerge.

The novel appears to jump back and forth in time, telling two apparently unconnected stories: one the life of Mariah in the post-apocalypse world, and the other the life of Faith in a world like the one we know. We are left to ponder what’s really going on – whether it is two points in time, or a real world and a virtual one; are Mariah and Faith separate individuals or the same person? Grace resists answering these questions until the end. I had a pretty good idea what was going on long before that, but I did like being left to deceipher it on my own.

This is a Christian novel only in the sense that the outlook of the central character is Christian – and only loosely Christian, at that. Characters refer to God as “The Awakener” and Christians are “The Awakened.” Christianity itself is not mentioned by name. During the reading of this novel, I coincidentally happened to be moving away from my personal Christian faith, so I was glad that this was more of a story told from the author’s peronal outlook than an attempt to convert an audience.

The author often uses very broad brush strokes in telling the story. The usual advice you hear in writing circles is “show, don’t tell,” whereas Grace has largely chosen “tell, don’t show.” But I’m going to defend her stance. The entire life of Faith is crammed into these pages, and it’s often not high-octane drama where you want to pull the reader in and show him every detail. It’s a gentler, everyday kind of story, and I found myself mostly content with the fast pace with which events were told. That said, there were points where I wanted the author to really zero in and pull the reader right into the direct experience of the protagonist.

On purely a personal interest level, I would have to say that the overall nature of the book as a love story didn’t really grab me as much as other aspects that I would have preferred to have seen developed, such as the nature of the totalitarian pre-apocalypse society, and a deeper exploration into virtual reality. In terms of the story the author wanted to tell, the stand-out for me was that I got the distinct feeling I was reading something autobiographical at times. And having now met Grace in person, I can confirm that this was indeed the case to a large extent. And it’s this that elevates the book to more than mere entertainment.

Faith Awakened is a self-published novel, and since so many self-published authors take the easy route of not learning correct grammar and not weeding out errors from their manuscript, I always feel I need to comment on this topic. Well, I’m pleased to say that this novel is very cleanly presented – obviously a labour of love in every way.

I had opportunity to meet Grace in person recently, in the bizarrest of coincidences. I happened to be reading her book while members of the Christian Fiction Review Blog (of which Grace is one) were gearing up to review my own novel, Chion. Grace happened to be living in Ireland at the time (she’s actually from New Zealand, and had been living in Germany until recently), so we arranged to meet up at a halfway point between our towns. Grace brought her laptop, and we decided to interview each other. I’m delighted to share that interview with you here. Grace has also agreed to allow Faith Awakened to be featured here for free download. For more information, visit the Faith Awakened website.

The Grace Bridges and Darryl Sloan interview:
[ Part 1 ] [ Part 2 ] [ Part 3 ] [ Part 4 ]

Blood Crazy by Simon Clark

There’s no shortage of stories where the population goes mad in one way or another, although to be fair, I’m reminiscing mainly about movies. George A. Romero’s The Crazies is the earliest one I remember, although you could argue that Night of the Living Dead and its many imitators is essentially the same idea, even if the antagonists do lumber about like arthritic pensioners. Invaders from Mars and Invasion of the Body Snatchers are also variations on the core theme, which is: everyone has changed; everyone is a threat; it’s survival of the few against against an uncountable enemy. And this happens to be one of my favourite themes.

Closest of all to Simon Clark’s Blood Crazy are the recent films 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later. But where those two movies are essentially common tales of infection by bite, Clark injects a fascinating twist into the mix. We’re not dealing with a contagion at all. Whatever it is that’s making people go crazy, it’s only affecting those above ninteen years of age. All young people are safe. Safe from infection, that is. Not safe from their own parents. When the mysterious event happens, the first thing on the minds of every adult is to slaughter their own children and then move swiftly on to others’ kids.

What makes this idea especially interesting is not that it revolves around the taboo topic of violence against children, but that it presents an unusual and original survival scenario. Essentially, the young have no one to turn to for help but each other. Nor have they anyone hold them back from doing whatever they want to do. You are faced with the dual problem of not having the knowledge you need to survive, nor the discipline to behave sensibly. While many young people are a credit to their generation, there are always the few who despise authority and crave violence. And so, while the adults baying for blood, the young are indulging in sex, booze, power and cruelty. This is essentially Dawn of the Dead meets Lord of the Flies. And it makes for a high-octane page-turner of a novel.

In the past, I’ve criticised so-called horror masters James Herbert, Shaun Hutson and Richard Laymon. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve gone too far. Then I read a book like Blood Crazy and I realise I was right all along. Because now I’m reading the real deal. The story is constantly moving forward and taking the reader to somewhere new and exciting. Clark has a really snappy style that I love; I was in awe of his ability to describe events so perfectly with so few words.

I do have a couple of criticisms of the novel. The hero, Nick Aten, gets the girl at every turn. Wherever he winds up in the story, there always seems to be a pretty stranger who’s horny for him. It’s a bit unbelievable and it also conveyed some pretty poor ethics about promiscuity. Secondly, all the mystery about why the adults went insane is crushed in a single chapter where a stranger has conveniently worked everything out off-stage. And it’s not a very good explanation, at that: essentially a concoction of athiesm and new-age-sounding psychology that had the effect of alienating me as a reader with Christian convictions. Romero was onto something when he never offered a concrete explanation, in any of his films, for why the dead came back to life. Unless a writer has an imagination of astounding proportions, chances are that any explanation for something so bizarre as the dead coming back to life, or the adult population going crazy, is going to be less than inspiring.

Still, the novel survives me giving it a thumbs down on the grounds that for the majority of its pages it was a hell of a good read.

Domain by James Herbert

I read James Herbert regularly as a teenager, and hardly ever after that. My one regret between then and now is that I never read Domain, partly because it was the third book in a trilogy of which I had read the first two (The Rats and Lair), and partly because the book belongs to my favourite sub-genre: post apocalypse.

Domain was written in the 1980s and is set in the same political climate, where it seemed that nuclear war might really happen. I can remember the vague anxiety associated with the time, even though I was a child. Back then, it always seemed like World War III would be a battle between the USA and Russia. How times change. The book is set in London and gets straight down to business with five nuclear missiles decimating the city. Most people above ground perish in the inital blast. For those more fortunate, the most convenient haven is the nearest tube station – get as far underground as possible before the nuclear fallout arrives. Unfortunately, there’s another threat lurking below: rats. Not regular rats, but a mutant strain throught to have been wiped out in the previous book. Instead, they have been hiding underground, breeding. Some of these rats are as big as dogs. And they’re as mean as rabid dogs. The people who took refuge don’t stand a chance.

The story is mostly told from the perspective of Steve Culver, a helicopter pilot, who is lucky enough to find himself in the company of a Government executive, a man called Dealey, when the bombs fall. Dealey is, unfortunately, blinded by the flash, and he needs Culver’s help to get to a secret Government fallout shelter that he knows about. From there, the story follows one survival escapade after another: battling the rats, battling floodwaters, battling rats in the floodwaters, battling people-gone-bad, battling more rats, etc. I started off enjoying the novel, but after a while I started to get the impression that there really wasn’t much of a story to tell. Towards the end, I was truly sickened by tunnel after door after tunnel after door.

I felt further frustrated by Herbert’s manner of storytelling. He’s quite verbose, tossing in unnecessary words and being vaguely repetitious:

He hacked their pink bodies, ignoring their faint cries, striking, pummelling, crushing their tiny bones, making sure each one was dead, beating any small movement from them, shredding them from existence, sundering them of all form, of any shape.

What is intended as dramatic is padded out to such a degree that all I can feel whilst reading it is tired and impatient. The story is further padded out with lines of dialogue between the characters that often serve no purpose except to slow everything down and bulk up the page-count. Many of the characters themselves are cardboard cut-outs. In one scene, there were several survivors travelling, and four of the men felt completely interchangeable to me; it didn’t matter who spoke. With the exception of Culver and Dealey, I couldn’t tell the difference between the men.

It’s not all bad. The novel does have its moments. From the sublime …

Ignore the old woman sitting on the floor rocking her blood-covered head backwards and forwards. Forget about the kid clinging to his mother, yelling for her to take out the horrible pieces of glass from his hands. Don’t look at the man leaning against the wall vomiting black blood. Help one and you had to help eveybody. Help everybody and you were finished. Just help yourself.

“Those people this morning didn’t look desparate. They looked as if they were enjoying themselves.”
“Let’s just say we’ve been knocked back a few thousand years to a time when other tribes are the enemy and certain breeds of animal are dangerous. We got through it then, we’ll do it again.”

To the ridiculous …

Sharon opened the door a fraction, just enough for her slim body to slide through, the tips of her breasts brushing against the edge.

As a teenager, I might have detected a degree of eroticism in the above paragraph. Now it reads like pure cheese to me. Sharon, a survivor among a group holed up inside a cinema, is heading to the toilet in the middle of the night. Every time Herbert deviates from the central group of survivors, you know he’s simply setting up a predicable scene where he gets to revel in death and destruction. Predictably enough, a horny bloke follows the girl, intent on raping her, and the rats break in and eat them both.

I recall generally enjoying Herbert’s novels as a teenager, but always feeling there was something a little cold about them in comparison to the likes of Stephen King. Almost two decades later, I can now put some words to those feelings. I think Herbert is purely a career writer, uninterested in creating art, just looking to earn a wage. I think he has an idea about what he thinks his target audience wants, and he simply aims to fill the gap. That’s why most of the books I’ve read by him have a typical and unnecessary sex scene. That’s why there’s so much gratuitous violence and gore. That’s why the characters are like puppets moved along a stage. Herbert’s books are product rather than art.

My frustration with this book boils down to this: I’m not as easy to please as I was when I was a teenager. Well, now that I’ve read the book that I always regretted not reading, I can finally put the ghost of James Herbert to rest.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Robert Neville is the last man on earth. He is the sole survivor of a mysterious plague that hasn’t so much wiped out humanity as changed it. By day, the city belongs to him. He is, for all practical purposes, completely alone – free to roam the concrete jungle, foraging for food supplies, equipment for his house, and entertainment to quell the loneliness. But come nightfall, they come out.

Who they are depends on whether you are most familiar with the original 1954 novel written by Richard Matheson, or one of its three film adaptations. Yes, three! I Am Legend was first filmed as The Last Man on Earth in 1964, starring Vincent Price. This film remains the most faithful adaptation of the novel, which is no surprise since the screenplay was written by Matheson himself, albeit under a psuedonym. Matheson didn’t want his name associated with the movie because of some changes to the script demanded by the producers. The creatures in this movie are like George Romero’s zombies with just enough brains to speak. Romero himself cites this film as influential in making Night of the Living Dead. The creatures are called vampires, and vampires they are, except for the lack of fangs – possibly a budgetary restriction. But they can’t stand sunlight, crosses, and can be killed with a stake through the heart, just as tradition states. Matheson’s novel features all that plus the fangs and a lot more agility.

In 1971 I Am Legend was remade as The Omega Man starring Charleton Heston. This time, the only vampiric trait the creatures possess is an aversion to sunlight. They are much more humanlike in terms of their rationality – they’re not interested in drinking your blood – although they’ve been transformed into black-clothed religious zealots with a hatred of technology. To them, Robert Neville epitomises everything that led to the destruction of the world. Matheson, as you can guess, was not involved in this adaptation. Although The Omega Man departs greatly from the original story, it’s still a worthwhile film. It served as my introduction to the novel. I first saw it as a child, and it was a very memorable experience.

In 2008 I Am Legend was made yet again, this time keeping its original name, with Will Smith in the title role. A massive budget went into this adaptation, and it shows. The city is fabulously deserted, decaying and overgrown, thanks to the wonders of CGI. This time the creatures are exclusively computer generated. In stark contrast to the staggering zombies of the first movie, these are fearsome, frenzied killing machines, scarier than a lion bearing down on you. Again, it’s far from a faithful adaptation of the novel, but it remains my favourite of the three movies for its portrayal of Robert Neville, his loneliness, his desperation, his struggles, his griefs. The director really had his head screwed on. Will Smith’s natural talent for looking cool is subdued and we are treated to a movie experience where substance wins over style.

Sadly, none of the movies bar the first has embraced the courage of the novel’s startling climax. The novel’s ending (as well as much of the content) is so different that I would gladly encourage viewers to watch both The Omega Man and I Am Legend before reading the novel. It might even enhance your reading experience, because you will be saying, “Hang on a minute. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go down.” However, save The Last Man on Earth till later, because that movie is a 95% copy of the book.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I want to share a couple of examples of what makes Matheson’s writing so good. In the story, Robert Neville has fortified his house against the enemy. He lives every day in isolaton and every night listening to the mocking cries of the undead outside his door. And then one morning, an unusual visitor shows up …

For an hour he [Robert Neville] wandered around the neighborhood on trembling legs, searching vainly, calling out every few moments, “Come on, boy, come on.”

At last he stumbled home, his face a mask of hopeless dejection. To come across a living being, after all this time to find a companion, and then to lose it. Even if it was only a dog. Only a dog? To Robert Neville that dog was the peak of a planet’s evolution.

And then, when Neville manages to lure the dog into his presence with food, he is fearful of scaring it away again …

But it was hard to keep his hands still. He could almost feel them twitching empathically with his strong desire to reach out and stroke the dog’s head. He had such a terrible yearning to love something again, and the dog was such a beautifully ugly dog.

As you can see, Matheson has a talent for both empathy and artistry. I think I’m getting a feel for the way he works. He will take a ridiculous notion that has no place in reality (be it vampires here, or a shrinking man, from another of his novels), then he will throw into the scenario characters that are totally realistic. Matheson gives you the impression that he has thought long and hard about what it would be like to be in a situation like Robert Neville’s. I Am Legend is the tale of a real man in the midst of the fantastic. Zero melodrama. It’s a short novel, barely more than a hundred and twenty pages, but it’s a more rich reading experience than many a five-hundred-page tome.

Not many novels have been made into movies three times. The fact that this one has is testament to how good it is. One of the first post-apocalyptic novels, and still one of the best.

The Walking Dead #2: Miles Behind Us by Robert Kirkman

Another enjoyable volume in The Walking Dead saga, although not quite on par with the first one. For me, there was far too much dialogue. Some frames had speech bubbles that were overloaded, the characters constantly pausing to express their feelings about life in the wake of the apocalypse. I get that the author wants to tell a story with emotion as well as action, but there’s such a thing as overkill. And frankly, we’ve heard it all before, and more succinctly, in George Romero’s movies.

Although The Walking Dead was first published in serialized comic form, there are definite story arcs that fit tidily into the graphic novel format. Volume 2 tells the tale of the survivors in their camper van hooking up with a small farming family, only to discover that the father has gone a bit batty. Chaos ensues. The thrust of the story covers similar ground to themes already expressed in Night of the Living Dead (being unwilling to kill your zombified loved ones) and Dawn of the Dead (storing the undead instead of killing theme). Although entertaining, it all felt a bit like filler material between volumes 1 and 3. Although I’ve never read 3, I think I can say this because 2 ends on a note of promise that leaves you wanting more.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road charts the journey of a nameless man and a nameless boy south through a post-apocalyptic America. They have nothing but each other and a cart of supplies. There is little food available. Nothing grows any more. The trees are leafless and ash covers the ground. The story is set years after some devastating event that turned the country into a charred ruin, presumably a nuclear war. The two protagonists are journeying south to escape the cold of the approaching winter, doing their best to avoid encounters with any “bad guys” (as the man calls them when speaking to the boy). In a world with nothing but canned food in ever diminishing supply, it’s not surprising that some might turn to cannibalism. The names of characters are never mentioned, I would guess, because in a world with so few people, names become meaningless. Likewise the names of the roads on which they travel have ceased to have meaning; there is only The Road.

You could be forgiven for skipping this novel on account of the bleak storyline. But nothing could be further from the truth. The novel shows the reader a world where on the surface of things there is nothing to live for – where you would either kill yourself or long for death. But the man’s entire life is transformed by the simple fact that he must take care of the boy. This is a story about where true meaning in life resides, when you strip away all the comforts and distractions of our lives: in the love one person has for another human being. It’s such a simple story: a long journey interspersed with occasional dramatic encounters. But it’s an absolute page-turner, because it’s meaningful, realistic, uncompromising.

The fact that it’s hard to put down may also have something to do with the strange style in which the book is written. There are no chapter divisions at all, but a great many scene divisions throughout the book. Many scenes consists of only two or three paragraphs. Rarely do they exceed two pages. This brevity, oddly enough, works quite well, and has the effect of making the reader think “Just a bit more before a put it down.” Then, before you know it, you’ve read another twenty pages.

The author has decided to rewrite the rules of English grammar and punctuation for himself. If McCarthy were a self-published author, I would be balking at such arrogance. But since he’s an accomplished author, and since I enjoyed the novel so much, I’m forced to pause and examine the matter closely. I always read with a critical eye, so here’s a list of all the things I saw McCarthy doing a little differently:

  • There are no quotation marks. Speech is rendered indistinguishable from narration, like this: Let’s go, he said. All things considered, it was fairly easy to distinguish the two.
  • Commas are in short supply. This decision did cause me a bit of grief. Occasionally I got mixed up in the meaning of a sentence and had to re-read it.
  • Several clauses in a sentence are often joined with multiple “and”s, in a manner that seems quite childlike, which is bizarre because McCarthy demonstrates a rich vocabulary that puts me to shame.
  • There are no italics. Fair enough; not exactly a necessity.
  • Apostrophes are removed from words like “can’t,” but are retained for words like “he’d.” McCarthy seems to have decided that when two words are joined together (“he had”), you keep the apostrophe, but when one one (“not”) is concatenated (“nt), you remove it. Struck me as an unnecessary amendment to the English language.
  • Hyphenated words are usually rendered without the hyphen.
  • “He” does not usually refer to the last mentioned subject, but to the man, as opposed to the boy, regardless of whether the boy was last mentioned.

Taking all of the above into consideration, I get the feeling that perhaps the author is attempting to convey a style similar to oral storytelling; you can’t speak a quotation mark, so why write one? The idea has some merit, and I’m actually curious about attempting to write something in a similar style. I appreciated some of McCarthy’s changes, but others irritated me and made the prose awkward to read. There was also a limited degree of sloppy inconsistency going on. More than once, I spotted a sentence like Come on he said, where McCarthy left out a comma in a circumstance where he always used one. Also, about halfway through the story, in a the middle of a paragraph, I encountered a nonsensical sentence that began with a small letter. It was as if someone had accidentally highlighted the first half of a sentence and deleted it by accident. Don’t publishers proof-read their books before publication? Shame on you, Picador.

Enough criticism. I’m overlooking McCarthy’s oddball English, because this is an excellent novel. Thoroughly recommended.

Antarktos Rising by Jeremy Robinson

I’ve had my eye on Jeremy Robinson for a while. He’s a self-published author running his own publishing imprint (Breakneck Books), and he’s one who seems to be going places. After spotting a couple of glowing reviews on some blogs, I had to get hold of this.

I love the concept Robinson came up with. America inexplicably freezes, while Russia boils, and Antarctica thaws. The earth’s crust has tilted forty degrees on its axis. All the earth’s nations are now in ruins, with billions dead. As humanity picks itself up from the apocalypse, the remaining governments seek to claim Antarctica (later named Antarktos) as their new home. Rather than descending into war, all the nations agree to a participate in a race. The first three to reach the centre of Antarktos will divide the continent into three equal sections. The losing nations will have to make do with the harsh conditons of their present homeland.

After only two months of mild weather conditions, Antarktos has mysteriously transformed into a lush paradise. Trees and plants have grown at an alarming rate. The thaw also reveals Antarktos to have been inhabited in the distant past, eons ago when it wasn’t covered in ice. Worse still, the thaw has released Antarktos’s wildlife from a state of cryonic suspension. The race teams not only have to outwit and outrun each other (with talented assassins and Arab terrorists in the mix), but they must also face dangerous dinosaurs and do battle with a more intelligent enemy – mentioned briefly in the Bible: giants, known as the Nephilim, recorded in Genesis chapter 6.

From the beginning, the story is divided up into several sub-plots. We follow Dr. Merrill Clark, Antarctic explorer, as he experiences the changes on the continent first-hand. We follow Mira Whitney, in the USA, who must escape an incoming tsunami followed by a rapid freeze. We see right inside the lives of Arab terrorists, intent on sabotaging the American race team. And there are Russians and Chinese sub-plots, too. All the jumping around from place to place does unfortunately have a negative affect on the story’s pacing, but it did help maintain the sense of epic promised in the story’s premise. Occasionally, I got impatent, eager for the race to get moving and the real adventure to start.

The first point where the story faltered a little for me was when Dr. Clark emerged from a naturally dry valley in Antarctica and discovered that all the ice had gone, leaving only soil and rock. The temperature had risen, then the ice had melted and presumably flowed out to sea. But I had to ask myself: why didn’t the water flow into the valley and drown Dr. Clark? A valley, by definition, is lower than the surrounding land. No matter how I tried to think about it, I couldn’t conceive of how one man could survive the “birth pains” of the new continent. I put this plot-hole aside, hoping it would be the only one. Sadly, a little later we see Whitney in the USA hiding from men with guns by pretending to be dead. However, she’s in sub-zero temperatures. The author seemed to forget that the very act of breathing would betray her, as her warm breaths hit the frigid air. Maybe I’m nit-picking, but it bugged me, because I thought it should have been so obvious. To be fair, though, the novel wasn’t littered with these inconsistencies.

The author makes a reasonable attempt to add a more intimate and personal side to the story. The lives of the principle characters are fleshed out. We even see the terrorists’ motives from inside their own heads. But none of it rings true enough for me. The characters were just too straightforward and uncomplicated, their actions occasionally spoiled by melodrama. The novel just lacks a necessary richness in the area of characterisation. And that’s a great pity, because that’s one of the main things I’m after, as a reader. If the characters don’t come alive in my imagination, even the most original and action-packed story will fail for me.

Antarktos Rising is essentially a cross-genre novel. Nothing wrong with that, in principal; genre definitions are merely labels to determine where a book should be placed in a store. Antarktos Rising starts out as a thriller with sci-fi leanings, but by the end it’s in full-fledged fantasy territory. Robinson starts off by appealing to those who like their fiction grounded in something close to reality; he goes to great pains to inject some science into his theory of the earth’s crust shifting. But at the end, we have winged beasts and magical healing powers. Those who where expecting a scientific explanation for the accelerated growth of Antarktos will be disappointed to discover that it boils down to an explanation more at home in a Tolkien-esque fantasy. All I’m saying is, you have to like both genres. You have to be able to handle the massive suspension of disbelief that is part-and-parcel of any fantasy novel right alongside scientific thrillers, which typically thrive on rationality. This strikes me as a hard sell, and it didn’t quite work for me.

It’s more than just thriller plus fantasy. There’s a religious side to the story. I have no problem with that, in principle, and I think it’s good that a writer injects his own beliefs into his fiction. That’s writing from the heart, after all. However, there was something strange about reading two characters debate about the historicity of the Biblical Flood inside a novel that was already steeped in so much fantasy. If you want to convince a reader that the events of the Bible really happened, you’re going to need to place your argument in a more reliable context. As a Christian myself, I felt Robinson went a little too far when he suggested that the Flood was not God punishing mankind for its wickedness (as stated in the Bible), but God wiping out a race of demon-human hybrids that had mixed with man’s bloodline. The Flood, he suggests, was a means of restoring humanity back to a pure bloodline. I’m shocked that a Christian author would dare to mix fantasy with reality and be so bold as to misrepresent the will of God.

I hate having to voice all these criticisms, because I really wanted to love this book. In fairness, there were some really atmospheric scenes. The short chapters, many of which ended in cliff-hangers, kept the pages turning. Robinson, as a self-published author, is one of the minority who are doing self-publishing the right way – taking time to shine their prose up so that it sparkles. Robinsons’s grammar, punctuation and style are almost indistinguishable from a professional novelist’s. I think, however, that the story could have benefitted greatly by being submitted to some hardcore critiques prior to publication. The plot-holes alone make me suspect that Robinson is running a one-man show. Every writer needs his advisers.

Overall, this is a story that attempts to be great and succeeds in being good. It’s clear that the author is working to the best of his ability and aiming for the top, which is something I can respect. And I hope that Jeremy Robinson continues to hone his craft with future novels. It struck me that fans of Jules Verne in particular may appreciate this novel.