(On Cable TV, January 2018) Michael Crichton became a contrarian cuckoo in his last few years, but even that sad brain-eating epilogue shouldn’t distract from an amazing career in which he wrote best-sellers, created hit TV shows, coded computer games, won a Technical Achievement Academy Award (!) for budgeting and scheduling innovations (!!) and, oh, directed half a dozen big-budget movies. Movies like Coma, showing his knack for technical medical drama coupled with solid storytelling abilities. While it’s not required to praise Coma beyond its own goals as a straightforward thriller, Crichton’s film does manage to be effective. Based on nothing less than one of Robin Cook’s early novels, it’s a blend of medical drama, high-tech investigation, conspiracy thriller and woman-in-distress drama. Genevieve Bujold stars as a doctor who becomes suspicious of mysterious coma cases at her hospital, with some good supporting performances by Michael Douglas and Rip Torn. (Watch for Ed Harris in his first film role as a technician.) While the film can’t escape a certain seventies stodginess, it’s this very same atmosphere that makes the film more interesting than expected today—Coma has emerged from the last thirty years as a period piece rather than a dated one, and it’s seeing things like Douglas in a full beard that makes the film rather entertaining to watch. Even the high-tech gloss of the film, at times ridiculous, is now rather charming. Not an essential film, but not an uninteresting one either.
Berkley, 1997, 338 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-15540-4
Wow, that book sucked.
I know; I know; I shouldn’t expect much from a paperback original adapted from a TV miniseries. I should expect even less from a thriller author meddling with science-fiction for the first time. And, goodness gracious, it’s not as if I had big expectations for Robin Cook after his execrable Fatal Cure. It’s not as if I hadn’t read bad reviews of the book already. But you never know. Sometimes, there are surprises.
But then again sometimes, there are no surprises. From the opening prologue, if not the very first page, something is wrong: Cook uses scientific words and expressions in a sloppy fashion, as if he only half understood what he was describing. The sequence -the apparition and crash-landing of an extraterrestrial space-ship- wants to be exact but ends up muddled. (As if that wasn’t bad enough, we don’t even know at this point that what’s being described doesn’t even match what happens later in the book.)
Things get worse in the first chapter, as Cook throws the book’s characters at the unsuspecting reader. They’re not introduced as much as they’re dropped on-stage, with cute names (“Beau”, “Pitt”, “Cassy”, “Nancy”, etc.) and threadbare personalities. Half of them are medical specialists or students, which will obviously be handy later on. Fortunately, it’s not required to learn anything about the characters yet: Invasion quickly settles into a quiet rip-off of INVASIONS OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and anyone even remotely familiar with tales of alien invasions can just relax and see where Cook intends to go.
Very quickly, it becomes obvious that Cook intends to go where every other science-fiction writer has gone before. As hunky Beau is taken over by an alien parasite, his personality changes and he becomes prone to saying things like “Hmm, humans are so strange.” His girlfriend isn’t particularly bothered by the changes given how he’s suddenly really really good in bed. (One would question how the alien knows those mad lovin’ skillz, but then again one could forever question just about everything in this novel.) Still, when he goes out and buys a dog without telling the missus, enough is enough and so she decides to leave and confide in her other platonic male best friend. (Why the heck would Beau-alien so spectacularly blow his cover without first infecting his girlfriend is a plot-busting question best left to anyone with an average IQ and up.)
It gets more or less worse from there, as alien crafts magically replicate, take over the population and create black holes whenever it’s convenient for the needs of the plot. Like most struggling SF writers, Cook conjures up all sorts of really creepy events, but never bothers to offer a unified theory of how they all interrelate. Things happen randomly and that’s that. The aliens are invading; screw any other rationale than pure evil. Whatever happens after the invasion is left blurry.
By the time a rag-tag bunch of misfits cook up an antidote of sorts in an abandoned high-tech laboratory hidden under the desert (hey, whatever), the book reads like a parody devoid of humour or even self-awareness. Invasion has a unique moment of SF goodness when it is revealed that the aliens are building an inter-dimensional gate to link Earth with the thousands of other conquered planets. While SF fans will read this and think “Cool! Let us see more of that!”, the characters react like xenophobic rednecks and go “We must destroy the gate! Eew! Icky aliens!”. Naturally enough, it’s all solved in the last ten pages as a counter-infection is going to kill off all traces of alien invasions. (Meanwhile, SF readers are concerned about whether those “infected” humans can, in fact, be uninfected without massive casualties, but that’s something that Cook obviously doesn’t care much about.)
Ultimately, though, a 700-words review isn’t enough to detail all the logical mistakes and deeply stupid moments in Robin Cook’s Invasion. Nor is it enough to give a sense of how tedious this book is, thanks to the lack of surprises and the flat characters. But it is just long enough to tell you to stay away from it, unless you want to see a real compendium of bad Science Fiction by an author who ought to stick to medical thrillers. And maybe not even that, judging how even that portion of Invasion fails to be any more credible. But what else did I expect?
Berkley, 1993, 449 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-14563-8
As somewhat of a genre reader, I rarely get to read books that make it to bestseller lists. Aside from Tom Clancy, most of the current best-selling authors aren’t favorites of mine. Robin Cook is one of these best-selling authors; Though I was aware that he wrote medical thrillers, the two book from him that I had read before in translation (Fever and Brain) didn’t make enough of an impression on me to lead on to further readings. (Unlike, say, Robert B. Parker—but I digress)
The literary circles I frequent often resent “bestsellers” as an inferior form of writing, as if being popular required bad writing, simple plot and cardboard characters. Right. Say what you want about the general dumbing-down of the American public (myth!) but truly bad novels go on the slushpile, not the top-ten lists which at worst might be filled with formulaic plotting and familiar characters, but not incompetence.
After reading Fatal Cure, I’m ready to revise this opinion.
If you’re somewhat familiar with medical thrillers, you already know the plot: Young couple is lured to a hospital in a city far way from home. But! Patients start dying mysteriously, the hospital’s administrators don’t want to talk about it and, of course, our protagonists are quickly threatened as soon as they investigate further.
Oh, I’m sure that most readers who paid good money to buy this book and put it on the charts really liked what they read. Maybe they’re just less demanding. Maybe they really like medical thrillers. Mostly they don’t read 150+ books a year like I do.
Because everything in Fatal Cure reads like a re-run of these 150+ books. With time, avid readers start building up standard templates of familiar stories, and less tolerance for those authors which can’t or won’t surprise them with fresh twist.
For instance: One of the thrills of crime fiction is to keep guessing the identity of the murderer. Ironically, if the reader figures out the mystery before it’s revealed, it definitely lessens the book’s impact, and takes away from the fun of reading the book.
Yes, I did figure out the identity of the bad guy in Fatal Cure. Pretty much from the first scene on; it’s that transparent.
The rest of the book isn’t much better. Every tired plot thread is used shamelessly, from the sick daughter to the sexual harassment subplot to the local sheriff in cahoots with the chief conspirators. So-called “clues” are so obvious that from their very first mention, you can guess how they’ll play later on in the book. So, the young couple buys a house whose owner mysteriously disappeared, but notice a strange smell in the basement. Gee, I wonder what that smell could possibly be…? Not so annoying if they would immediately discover the body, but rather more annoying when no less that 104 pages (69 to 173) pass between smell and body.
It gets worse; not only is the plot clichéd in every conceivable way, but it is also wrapped in an unsubtle authorial message about how bad HMOs truly are and why Americans shouldn’t support such initiatives. (Hey, in Fatal Cure HMOs breed killer administrators. And that too can be guessed early on.)
And yet… and yet… Even though most copies of Fatal Cure could spontaneously combust with nary a tear from me (provided the rest of the libraries stay intact), it should be said that once you make it through the first half of the book, it doesn’t get better but it can be read fairly easily, especially if you’re adept at diagonal reading; most of what is expected to happen, happens, and if you enjoy that type of thing, I can see Fatal Cure as average beach reading.
On the other hand, there’s never a single element to convince me to read another Robin Cook book ever again. Somehow, I don’t think he’ll feel the pain very much.