St. Martin’s, 2002, 340 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-312-28342-3
There are no perfectly sane writers.
There is always a little trapdoor in every author’s mind, a trapdoor that normally blocks dumb ideas, stupid beliefs, sexual kinks, wrong impulsions and other things we don’t really want to know. If the author is reasonably self-cognisant and if his agent/editor is at least mildly competent, the trapdoor stays closed and readers never have to hear about any of the silliness hidden behind it.
But as authors’ careers advance, as they become so successful as to dictate terms to his editor, or as their thirst for money grows outside all reasonable bounds, the trapdoor opens and what comes out isn’t pretty. In the techno-thriller field, take a look at the brief but spectacular flame-out of Payne Harrison’s career. Two excellent novels (Storming Intrepid and Thunder of Erebus), followed by one mildly entertaining potboiler (Black Light) and then Forbidden Summit, one ludicrous straight-to-paperback UFO-are-real conspiracy thriller complete with an afterword claiming that the conspiracy was real. Exit Payne Harrison: he never wrote a novel under that name again.
Now the brain-eating, trapdoor-opening disease has firmly lodged itself in the head of Stephen Coonts, as he trades his credibility for extra bucks with the trade-paperback original UFO thriller Saucer. To be fair, it starts promisingly, as an engineering team discovers a long-buried flying saucer in the Sahara desert. So far, so good: there’s no trace of a conspiracy, and there’s still a science-fictional thrill in contemplating alien relics left on Earth thousands of years ago. What’s more, Coonts anchors his novel around an endearing young protagonist, and if the result may not rise much above adventure fiction for the first hundred pages, it’s decent adventure fiction.
It gets more interesting when the characters figure out that the saucer has been shaped by and for human minds. Savvy SF readers immediately reach for the good old time-travel explanation, with maybe a wince when remembering Michael Crichton’s Sphere. But Coonts then takes his accumulated momentum and runs off a credibility cliff: You see, explain the book’s mouthpiece scientist, humans are the descendant of an alien race that landed on Earth thousands of years ago, and then devolved into tribalism and forgot all about their technological origins.
This, to put it too mildly, is nonsense. It flies in the face of everything we know about early human history, culture and biology. (There’s more than enough genetic linkage between humans and other animals to make it patently obvious that we share a common biological origin.)
But it gets worse, a lot worse as Saucer abandons adventure fiction to focus on the machinations of an evil tycoon, the duplicity of the US government, and romance in a “get me the super-duper MacGuffin!” plot that was better-handled in books like Dale Brown’s classic Day of the Cheetah. Even our likable protagonist loses his charm, as his characterization oscillates between boy genius, dumb teenager (“thirty-year-old women are old!”) and stone-cold killer. Saucer, in other words, gets silly, gets dumb and gets old real fast.
The cherry topping on the sundae comes late in the book, as the protagonists figure out how to hook up the saucer’s advanced computer to a plain old laser printer. Gaaah. At this point, it’s obvious that Coonts just doesn’t even care about his readers: as long as he’s got their money, it’s all good. (But now try to convince those readers to buy your newer books, chump…) This “my readers are morons and that’s a good thing” thinking extends to the mechanics of the saucer’s anti-gravity mechanism, which make no sense and, if I’m reading latter sections correctly, would even prevent the saucer from leaving the ground.
Fortunately, it’s not all bad,: Despite the considerable lengths and silly plot mechanics, Coonts still gives to Saucer a basic readability. Part of it is based in “just how dumb is this going to become?”, but part of it is also based on a scattering of intriguing characters and neat reversals. But this doesn’t change that of all of Coonts’ book, this is the first trade-paperback original, and that it’s nowhere near the quality of his latest books, even the disappointing Hong Kong.
I now see that Saucer somehow warranted a sequel (Saucer: The Conquest, which I seriously think lacks an exclamation point.), which strengthens my whole “Dumb readers! Money! Dumb readers! Money!” theory. Memo to authors: Writing fun adventure fiction doesn’t give you an excuse to ignore logic and good sense. Unless you don’t have any left, the trapdoor having sprung open.
[January 2009: Re-reading the above before tackling a cheap used copy of Saucer: The Conquest, I briefly wondered if the novel really deserved my bucketful of vitriol. After reading the sequel, I’m now worried that I may have been too lenient: The second adventure of boy genius Rip Cantrell is just as bad, if not even a bit worse, than the original. From Area 51 conspiracies to AUSTIN POWERS-grade lunar death beams to the machination of a French tycoon (who, being French in an American thriller, obviously turns out to be evil), Saucer: The Conquest is another damaging piece of nonsense for Coonts, whose recent novels have proven to be more and more erratic. It’s not enough for him and his fans to take refuge behind excuses of “light adventure science-fiction”: This is bad fiction, period.]