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.

Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human by K.W. Jeter

jeterkw-bladerunner2The 1982 film Blade Runner was based on an earlier novel by Philip K. Dick entitled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. That novel is much quirkier and more upbeat than the dystopian movie adaptation by Ridley Scott. The plot is also significantly different, if I remember correctly. My first question, then, on approaching this written sequel, is whether it is a sequel to the book or the film. The answer is the latter. Jeter’s book captures the dark tone of the movie and makes direct reference to characters and scenes from it.

The story is set in a future Los Angeles, where the sky is abuzz with flying cars set against a backdrop of neon. And the city is even more polluted than it is at present. Signs advertising off-world colonies seduce people into leaving the planet behind for good. Central to the story is the Tyrell Corporation, responsible for creating synthetic humans, called replicants, as a source of off-world labour and entertainment. Sometimes replicants try to sneak away and get to Earth. And that’s where blade runners come in. A blade runner is a police officer tasked with hunting down and killing replicants – only they don’t say “kill”, they say “retire.”

Rick Deckard, our main protagonist, is (or was) a blade runner. The movie concluded with this lovestricken cop running away from his job, and the city, with Rachael Tyrell, the replicant “niece” of the murdered Eldon Tyrell, head of the Tyrell Corporation. The book picks up the story of couple of months later, with Deckard living in a cabin in the woods with Rachael. The authorities locate Deckard, tear him away from Rachael, and ferry him back to the city for one more job. Apparently, there is a sixth replicant, in addition to the five that Deckard retired in the movie. If Deckard ever wants to see Rachael again, it’s his job to track down and terminate this loose end. Only, in a complicated twist, he’s going to have the whole LAPD out to get him at the same time.

Many characters from the movie make an appearance, even some we thought were dead. Resurrecting them is done relatively convincingly. I don’t want to spoil anything here. The book is let down somewhat by the story itself. It’s just not interesting enough. At times I couldn’t tell what was coming next, not because the story was unpredictable in a good way, but because I couldn’t make head or tale of some of the characters’ motivations. Some of the resurrected characters don’t even advance the plot; they’re just there as morbid background curiosities. Fans will probably want to know whether the book develops the matter of whether Deckard is a replicant himself? Yes, it does, but we’re still left with uncertainties.

Ultimately, if you loved the movie and you just want to immerse yourself in the same atmosphere a second time, you may appreciate this. Jeter writes with more artistry than is common in fiction these days, but sometimes it comes off as more confusing than descriptive. Ultimately, I just didn’t find the story interesting enough. In the end, we have fisticuffs mirroring the Deckard-Batty showdown in the movie (a tiresome trend in sequels) and mistaken identity shenanigans (which is rather predictable in a story about clones). The Edge of Human is the first volume in a trilogy, so maybe the plot improves. But I’m not sure I’m willing to invest the time.

Blake’s 7: Lucifer by Paul Darrow

The closing scene of the last ever episode of the British television series Blake’s 7 was so shocking that it forever imprinted itself on my nine-year-old brain back in 1981. Be warned, this review contains spoilers, but my guess is, if you’re interested in the new Blake’s 7 novels, then you’ve already watched the series. In the dramatic finale, Blake finally comes back into the picture after being absent for the best part of two seasons, only to be shot dead by Avon in a tragic misunderstanding. Literally seconds later, the Federation troops arrive and gun down every member of Avon’s crew: Vila, Tarrant, Dayna and Soolin. The series concludes with Avon standing over Blake’s body, gun in hand, surrounded by troopers, all with their blasters held really. Avon raises his weapon, smiles. Credits roll over the sound of blasters. It was almost Shakespearean. When the series was eventually released on videotape in the early 1990s, I had forgotten so much about it, including many of the main characters. But I could never forget Avon and that final scene.

Imagine my delight when I learn, in 2012, that Big Finish are planning to publish brand new Blake’s 7 novels. Even better, one of them is written by the very actor who played Avon: Paul Darrow. Lucifer is set in two different time periods. One of these tells the story of how Avon escaped death in the final episode. The other is set twenty years later.

First, let’s talk about how Darrow tackles the escape. I was glad that the author stuck to the idea that his crewmates really are stone cold dead. Some fans have speculated that they were merely stunned, since there was no blood. But those are clearly Federation blasters going off, and they’ve never had a stun setting. Avon gets away in the only manner I’ve ever been able to imagine him getting away; the scene is interupped by intuders. Predictable, but necessary. However, what is truly disconcerting is the manner in which Avon leaves without a single acknowledgement of his fallen comrades. I don’t think he even glances at the bodies. We know that Avon is emotionally disconnected and borderline sociopathic. Even so, I expected something. Maybe not grief, but just something. If anything, it was the perfect moment to reflect on the illusion of invincibility. But no, Avon just moves forward with his usual bravado.

At least fifty percent of the novel concerns itself with Federation politics. Servalan is there, along with a complement of new characters, none of whom come in contact with Avon. There seem to be two stories, told in tandem, which only intersect peripherally. One is the restructuring of the Federation after it is decimated by enemies that attack from something called the “Beyond”. The other is Avon trying to get off a planet. The Avon story is fairly simplistic. After surviving Gauda Prime, Avon is deposited on an earthlike planet, where he is marooned for two decades and makes a couple of friends. When the Federation gets wind of his presence, he plays cat and mouse with them until he can steal one of their ships. Avon then heads back to Gauda Prime and fetches Orac. Most of the political stuff in the background struck me as highly irrelevant. It’s possible, I suppose, that it will be developed further in Darrow’s next book (Lucifer is the first in a planned trilogy).

With any space opera, you have to suspend disbelief to an extent. We don’t worry about weapons that make sounds in space, or spacecraft that have artifical gravity. But there is a limit. When I said Avon was marooned on a planet, I was being too kind. It’s actually something the author calls an “island planet” (see the book jacket illustration). A fragment of a larger planet that somehow “fell away” but retained full gravity, atmosphere, and population.

The politics are also a little unconvincing. Somehow, on Earth there exists a Chinese empire called Eastern Earth. I find it hard to believe that the Terran Federation can’t take control of a rogue nation on their home turf when they’ve taken ownership of countless planets throughout the galaxy. Another bizarre inclusion was the continual references to present-day weaponry, such as napalm and machine guns. It was a strange choice for the author to make and it causes the novel to feel inauthentic as a Blake’s 7 story.

The Avon character is written convincingly, but lacks a lot of the dry humour he came out with in the series. I don’t think we can blame Darrow for that, since the humour was usually centred around mocking the now deceased Vila. Sadly, when Avon and Orac finally get together, the exchange is unconvincing. When Avon says, “I’ll be damned,” Orac replies, “You were damned a long time ago.” This is simply not a sentiment that I can picture the computer ever making.

What can I say? I was disappointed. I really wanted this to be great, because I love Darrow’s character in the series. And having seen the actor in interviews and read his autobiography, You’re Him, Aren’t You?, I also really like the man himself. In a sense, I don’t wish to be too hard, because when you’re writing a story that begins at the point where much of what made Blake’s 7 entertaining has just been killed off, you don’t have a lot left to work with. Maybe this was a tale best left untold.

Blake’s 7: Warship by Peter Anghelides

anghelidesp-warshipSeason 2 of the BBC television series Blake’s 7 culminates in the fulfilment of Blake’s quest to find and destroy the hub of Federation communications, known as Star One, located just off the edge of our galaxy. Whilst this has the intended effect of crippling the Federation’s totalitarian grip on the colonized worlds, it has the unfortunate side-effect of disabling a minefield laid down by the Federation to separate our galaxy from the next – a minefield beyond which an alien invasion fleet has been waiting for entry. (Of course, why the ships can’t simply go around the minefield is never explained, but one learns to accept such silliness when revisiting much loved TV from one’s childhood.) The final episode of the season concludes with Blake’s ship, the Liberator about to embark on a near-suicidal war against the alien invaders. Avon, at the helm, shouts “Fire!” presses a button on the console, and the end credits roll.

Season 3, televised the following year, commences with the tail end of a fierce battle. The Liberator crew is forced to abandon ship using lifepods, while Zen, the ship’s computer, tries to effect repairs. Warship is the untold story of what happens during the inter-season battle. It’s the perfect place to insert a “missing” episode, and indeed the novel reads just like that. The characters are all portrayed authentically, and fans will get a nostalgic thrill from seeing new life breathed into old friends.

The book is published by Big Finish, and is the third in the series. While books 1 and 2 (The Forgotten and Archangel) are lavishly produced hardcovers, sadly Warship is confined to ebook only. The reason for this is possibly because it is significantly shorter than the other volumes. Judging by time time it took to read on my Kindle, I’m guessing it would span not much more than 100 physical book pages. Still, it’s a shame that it couldn’t be included as part of the forthcoming Blake’s 7 anthology. Another reason for not producing a hardcover might be because Warship is actually the novelization of an audiodrama, and as such, may be more of an afterthought to the main product. I haven’t got hold of this yet, but am looking forward to listening to it, as it is acted by the original cast members, with the exception of Peter Tuddenham (Zen), who has passed away. It’s pretty amazing to be able to get almost all the significant cast back thirty years after the original programme.

The story of Warship is rather good. There’s a lot more going on than merely “Liberator engages in space battle until defeated.” Blake and Cally teleport off to a nearby planetoid in the hope of finding aid, only to discover a new threat; meanwhile the crew are having to contend with an alien close encounter – aboard ship. The only part of the story that suffers slightly (and this is inevitable) is its ending, as the plot is forced to join up precisely with the opening of season 3.

Peter Anghelides is a competent writer. There were a few faux pas, as is common with small press fiction, but a forgiveable amount – think of this like the literary equivalient of the shaky sets and dodgy effects of the original series. Of the Blake’s 7 fiction released so far, Warship is definitely a high point, and somewhat restores my faith in the saga, after the slightly disappointing effort that was Archangel.

Blake’s 7: Archangel by Scott Harrison

harrisons-archangelThis is the second novel published in Big Finish’s range of Blake’s 7 original stories. Like the preceding book, it takes the form of a missing episode, set between the season two episodes Trial and Killer. Fans of the television series will know that this places the novel right after the death of crew member Olag Gan. Author Scott Harrison fleshes out some drama between Blake and his crew, as they deal with the tragedy. Blake comes under fire for his reckless idealism and lack of concern for the safety of those who accompany him.

The thrust of the story concerns Blake’s investigation into a secret Federation project called Archangel. It was once abandoned, but now there are rumours of it starting up again. But no one knows what it is. Blake’s only lead is Kodyn Tam, an old friend from Earth. After a bit of action here and a bit of action there (action that feels very much like padding), the crew of the Liberator eventually arrive at Project Archangel, which turns out to be … no spoilers, but it’s nothing terribly exciting.

The characters have always been the high point of Blake’s 7, and for the most part the dialogue penned by Harrison rings true to the original series. There are many sarcastic quips from Avon. This would normally be very enjoyable, except the author is a little over-enthusiastic, turning Avon into a walking bag of dry jokes. Harrison would have been better to pick the best ones, instead of saturating the reader.

Harrison’s writing is, unfortunately, distinctly amateur. There were numerous grammatical errors. He also has an irritating habit of cutting away from a scene to another scene, then cutting back to the original scene after the action has finished. At times, there was something awkward about the prose that made me struggle to get a proper mental picture of what was happening.

The novel is a mish-mash of familiar sci-fi themes, with no original spin, and the story moves from A to Z via a route that could easily have been shortened, but probably needed to be padded out for the sake of a required length. On a plus note, Harrison is fairly successful at capturing the authentic feel of Blake’s 7. But as a missing episode, Archangel is merely average. There are probably worse episodes in the television series itself, but I had hoped for something better here.

Judge Dredd Versus Aliens: Incubus by John Wagner & Andy Diggle

wagnerj-judgedreddvsaliensWhat happens when Mega City 1’s coldest, fiercest lawman comes in contact with the galaxy’s coldest, fiercest alien? A winning combination for a story. This graphic novel is not an attempt to say that Mega City 1 somehow exists in the past history of the Alien movies; that would be absurd. But why not take a creature from a popular movie series and drop it into a different mythos? It’s fun.

We begin with a citizen stuck in a traffic jam, desperate to get to hospital because he knows he’s going to die. It’s how he’s going to die that’s the surprising part – at least for the Judges, and those unfamiliar with the Alien movies. The creature bursts from its host’s chest and is on the loose, rapidly growing to adulthood. Where did it come from? How did the man get impregnated? Are there any more of the creatures? The answers come from an old foe of Dredd’s – someone he banished to the Cursed Earth, but who eventually found his way on to a starship. And now he’s brought something back to Earth.

“Incubus” is the name given to the Alien species here. It’s the first time I’ve heard it called this, and it’s a perfect fit, when you consider the historical meaning of the term: a spirit that comes to your bed in the middle of the night and has sex with you against you will. Not dissimilar to a run-in with a face-hugger. And after all, the Alien uses the human host as an incubator.

Incubus was first published as a four-issue comic, and can also now be obtained as a graphic novel. A highly enjoyable rollercoaster ride for fans of either Alien or Dredd. A mixture that’s likely to create a few new fans on opposite sides.

Blake’s 7: The Forgotten by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright

scottc-forgottenBlake’s 7 was a British science fiction television series that began in the late 1970s. The special effects were very low budget, but this was more than made up for by the memorable characters and interesting stories. It was far grittier than Star Trek, Buck Rogers, or Space: 1999. The series creator Terry Nation described it as The Dirty Dozen in space. The heroes were a bunch of thieves, swindlers and soundrels who managed to get hold of the most powerful spacecraft in the galaxy. Led by Blake, a political activist framed by a corrupt galactic government, they take their ship, the Liberator, on a crusade against the might of the Federation.

I was fond of this series when I was a child, and it has stuck with me through the decades, becoming a lifetime favourite. There were 52 episodes in total, over four seasons, and I know this is going to sound hokey, but when sleeping at night, I’ve actually experienced the occasional dream about the discovery of a lost episode. Now it turns out that, in a manner of speaking, I’ve had my dream fulfilled. Imagine my delight when I recently discovered that the company Big Finish were in the middle of producing a series of new novels and full-cast audiodramas (starring the original cast members!) set in the Blake’s 7 universe. Blake’s 7 lives on!

The Forgotten is the first novel release in the forthcoming series. It’s a story set between the season 1 episodes “Mission to Destiny” and “Duel.” There’s nothing blindingly original about the story, but it serves beautifully as a highly interesting missing episode. Best of all, authors Scott and Wright, pull off the characters superbly – particularly Avon and Vila, who always had the best lines in the television series.

‘I don’t know why Blake sent me down here,’ said Gan. ‘I don’t know much about computers.’

‘Think of them as complicated idiots,’ replied Avon without irony.

‘Like Vila?’ joked Gan.

‘There’s nothing complicated about Vila, he’s just an idiot.’

I could visualise the scenes perfectly, and I finished the book feeling like I had just watched a missing episode. The story itself concerns the Liberator venturing into a strange nebula cloud bordered by Federation warnings. But the crew have no choice, since they are already under attack by a horde of Federation pursuit ships. Inside, the nebula plays havoc with the ship’s electronics. Deep within, the crew find a partially destroyed space station. Blake decides to investigate, and naturally, trouble ensues.

My only criticism is that some of the writing is a little sloppy and amateurish, but that’s a small failing. I just wanted to immerse myself in the Blake’s 7 universe again, and the authors successfully captivated me. Gazing at the book on my shelf as a fan of the show, there is something marvellous about seeing the official Blake’s 7 logo appearing on something brand new, when the series has been dead and gone for three decades. I’m thoroughly looking forward to forthcoming books.