Tag Archives: Steve Alten

Resurrection, Steve Alten

Forge, 2006 reprint of 2004 original, 523 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-57957-7

There are authors out there who are reliable, stable and predictable.  Not in the bad sense of the word, mind you: Their name is a badge of quality and consistency, a virtual guarantee that what you’re going to get is exactly what you expect.  Michael Connelly, Lee Child and Carl Hiaasen all come to mind as such models of reliability.

Then there’s Steve Alten, who has become increasingly unpredictable since his impressive debut with Meg, back in 1997.  His subsequent biography has been… eclectic.  Sequels to Meg (five of them by 2011) drove the exact same premise into the ground and kept stomping.  Other standalone novels ranged from a vigorous (but slightly crazy) military techno-thriller with Goliath, to conspiracy-drenched agitprop in The Shell Game.  More rarely, there’s just dullness, such as the Loch Ness monster-themed The Loch.

And then there’s his Domain trilogy.  I wasn’t aware that Resurrection was the second volume of that series when I picked it up: I thought it was another standalone novel.  Imagine my growing surprise when I realized the amount of backstory required to end up where Resurrection starts: After averting a worldwide nuclear war in 2012, our heroine gives birth to twin boys, fulfilling a copious heaping of Mayan mythology.  This being said, backstory is the least of Resurrection’s insane charm as the novel fast-forwards through the next twenty years of its deliriously imagined future: In-between an abused girl growing up to become the Antichrist (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), famous people who are somehow able to become equally famous under different identities, Alten’s shameless grab for all the mythologies and pseudoscience he can find, ridiculous future world-building, wild presidential assassination attempts, and hiccupping plotting spread over decades, Resurrection stays away from basic credibility, which is probably wise when you have a sequel to a near-catastrophe of global proportion.

The accumulation of quirks and the progressive transition of the novel from fanciful techno-thriller to full-on science-fiction is interesting, mind you… but not in a conventional or even respectable sense.  As the incongruities, half-baked ideas and caricatures accumulated (the sultry villainess alone seems taken straight out of the Big Book of Evil), I found myself firmly hooked, but only to find out what else Alten was going to introduce to much fanfare.  It finally dawned on me that Resurrection is unintentional crackfic, the term most enlightened readers will use in describing something so obviously outlandish that it flips into meta-fictional comedy.  In this light, Resurrection isn’t borderline incompetent fiction as much as it’s an experience that must be read to be believed.

It would work better, admittedly, if Alten showed the slightest bit of self-awareness as to the ludicrousness of his premise.  But as the novel sinks deeper into disparate mythologies, pop mysticism and magical combats featuring resurrected protagonists in alternate realities (or is it far-flung time travel?  Oh, who cares…), the signs also accumulate that Alten’s being undisciplined.  Not being a genre SF writer, he has no natural instinct nor any coherent framework for his extrapolated future: Scene after scene enthusiastically dumps exposition because he thinks it’s cool, not because it’s in any way needed.  There are digressions about entirely-fictional sport team leagues, and more curiously an entire narrative recap of the American space program up to now… even as the novel is set a few decades in the future.  This is just sloppy stuff no matter how you look at it; fortunately, it’s in the middle of a madcap attempt at writing a large-scale thriller with no sense of focus.  It’s not even done particularly well –unlike Dan Brown’s novels, which have an undeniable forward sense of narration, Resurrection sorts of sprints, sputters and retreats at random intervals.

Resurrection works in ways that are orthogonal to the typical rewards of well-written fiction.  The best way to make sense of it is to abandon reason entirely.  That is, its appeal is bound to be largely idiosyncratic, reaching self-satisfied hipster readers with qualities that the author, I suspect, never intended.  It’s probably the craziest novel I’ve read from Alten; given the unevenness of his bibliography so far, I’m impressed but I can’t say I’m surprised.

The Shell Game, Steve Alten

Sweetwater Books, 2008, 512 pages, C$33.00 hc, ISBN 978-1-59955-094-7

(Read in translation as La Conspiration de l’Or Noir, City, 507 pages, ISBN 978-2-35288-186-5)

Fiction writer are prone to various work-related illnesses, but one of the most debilitating one is believing in their own genre tropes. There’s a reason why Science Fiction writers are a bunch of hard-core skeptics who are never invited to speak to UFO conferences: The moment they start believing in Little Green Men, their credibility is toast, and their fiction is next. The equivalent for thriller writers is to start believing in their own conspiracies, and it’s just as damaging: Ask anyone about Payne Harrison’s Forbidden Summit (a UFO-conspiracy novel that seemingly destroyed his fiction career) and you’ll see what happens to those who put footnotes saying It’s all true!

Alas, the Bush years have fueled all sorts of paranoid reflexes even in the most reasonable citizens, which may explain a recent influx of deeply grim novels in which stalwart heroes are stuck between bloodthirsty terrorists and a government ready to do even worse things on behalf of national security. Nelson DeMille’s Wild Fire is only the best-known of this new breed of novels where the government is just as dangerous as terrorists, and I don’t see this trend going away despite the inauguration of a new administration. We’ll get quite a few novels like Steve Alten’s The Shell Game until the wave crests.

I won’t try to pretend that Alten’s career so far has been irreproachable: For every strong thriller like his debut Meg (about an 18-wheeler-sized shark) or Goliath (about a top-secret submarine that turns sentient), there’s been a succession of insipid Meg sequels that did little to enhance his track record. The Shell Game is a departure for him in many ways. For one thing, it’s published by a boutique publishing house best known for conservative-leaning religious-themed non-fiction and not Alten’s usual top-tier publishers. The reason for that change quickly becomes apparent from the plot summary: In 2012, a man tracking down the murder of his wife discovers a plot by US government operative to detonate a nuclear explosive in a major American city, in order to justify the invasion of Iran.

The parallels with DeMille’s Wild Fire exist, but DeMille doesn’t sink nearly as deep in conspiracy-land as Alten does. Nor does DeMille risk tying his story with real-world figures. Here, though, characters have worked with Karl Rove, have defeated Hilary Clinton for the democratic presidential nomination, are named “McKuin” rather than “McCain”, and cite reams of supporting documentation whenever they meet.

And oh boy do they cite. Pages of citations. With figures, references and reminders of historical events that should be perfectly obvious to the two people having the conversation. The first half of The Shell Game is a dull recitation of a thesis on peak oil and the ways the oil industry has a stranglehold on American society. And if you’re still not satisfied by the in-text infodumps, then you’ll feast on the citations between chapters, the plainly didactic confessions of a Republican operative that are interleaved between segments, not to mention the foreword in which Alten explains that a good chunk of the novel is based on actual verifiable facts, and the afterword which provides citations for some of the novel’s concepts.

Desperate much for validation, ya think? No, it’s not enough for Alten to re-cast, much like DeMille did, the untenable “9/11 was an inside job” ideas into a future plot involving nuclear weapons. He also drags in a bunch of other conspiracy theories, from false vaccines that are actually injections of nanochip trackers to the involvement of the Saudi Arabian government in white slavery to yet another mention of the Promis super-snooper software. But when you start looking at the Alten’s sources at the back of the book, you quickly fall into a maze of unspecified “numerous sources”, untraceable “confidential sources” and a handful of books like Crossing the Rubicon that aren’t exactly unimpeachable. This novel isn’t just steeped in conspiracy theories, it’s so deep in them that they drown the actual story. By the time the actual plot unfolds, late in the novel’s second half, it’s too little too late: An explosive twist happens too late in the story to allow for reasonable dramatic development.

The irony is that from a strictly ideological perspective, I’m probably not that far away from Alten himself: As a French-Canadian, I’m somewhere beyond the left edge of American mainstream politics, and I too have ground my teeth into dust during the eight years of the Bush administration. But as much as I enjoy the storytelling potential of conspiracy theories, I don’t make the mistake of using them as reasonable explanations for what’s going on in the world.

What’s really sad about The Shell Game‘s paranoid reliance on a oil barrel full of conspiracies and dubious sourcing is that it obscures the real strengths of the novel: Alten’s understanding of the ways oil intersects with American politics is fairly sophisticated, as is his explanation of Saudi Arabia’s influence on the US government (white slavery sponsorship excluded). There’s also something intriguing about the triangular nature of the plotting at work here, as the heroes find themselves stuck between warring terrorists and a government willing to sacrifice a lot of pawns. It’s easy to dismiss the paranoia, but it’s a valid sentiment that, especially in its milder form, was shared by a lot of average Americans during Bush’s second mandate. Still, The Shell Game does itself no favors by burying itself in sources: in begging for validation, it shoots itself in the foot, whereas a wilder approach leaving more space for fiction wouldn’t have invited so much scrutiny. (No one asks Matthew Reilly for sources, for instance.) From a storytelling viewpoint, a less discursive novel also would have avoided the interminable infodumping that kills The Shell Game early on.

In interviews promoting The Shell Game, Alten confesses that his novel has a didactic intent, but stops short of professing any belief in the 9/11 conspiracy theories. If there’s any hope left for Alten’s next few novels, it’s that thin edge of skepticism. The last thing we need is another author who starts believing his own fiction.

[Also: Francophones should be wary of reading The Shell Game in translation: While La Conspiration de l’Or Noir (which back-translates in “The Black Gold Conspiracy”) is published by first-tier French publishing house City and probably enjoys better distribution in French-Canada than its English-language original, it is also riddled with numerous mistakes that further damage its credibility. Clinton’s famous “The economy, stupid” is translated as “L’économie, c’est idiot” [P. 133: “The economy, it’s stupid”] while an awkward sentence early i
n Chapter 36 makes it look as if the U.S. Bank Tower is the tallest building in North America. Worse yet: the translation introduces small errors of fact, in which a democratic candidate is called a “sénateur républicain” [Chapter 26] and the chemical attack on Halabja is described as having occurred in 1998 rather than 1988. [Chapter 20] Reader beware…]

Goliath, Steve Alten

Forge, 2002, 416 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30064-8

(Read in French as Goliath, translated by Marie Claude Elsen)

It must be a rotten time, in these early years of the twenty-first century, to be a techno-thriller writer. For decades, the Cold War provided a stable framework in which to set tales of global domination and intrepid freedom-loving heroes. Then, during the nineties, relative global quiet allowed them a few good years of stability battling drug cartels and (then) fictional terrorists. But even as the Bush administration seems to be engaged in a long campaign to secure everyone’s New American Century (whether they want it or not), techno-thrillers are being strangled by the incertitude. It’s no longer possible for anyone to depend on geo-political alliances that will last more than a few years, or long enough for the novel to make it to paperback. Anything can happen, and since November 2000, it seems as if just about anything has.

No longer is it possible to write an explicitly post-September-11 novel taking place in 2009 in which Baghdad is destroyed by American nuclear weapons. Or rather; it might have seemed like a good idea when I started reading Steve Alten’s Goliath, but it didn’t seem nearly so amusing by the time I finished it, as real bombs were falling over the real city, killing real people despite unreal news reports. But let’s not turn this into (yet another) dreary case of literary criticism turned political diatribe Truth is, there’s a lot to like and to skewer in Goliath, even when you shove aside the politics and the economics of starving techno-thriller writers.

Take, for instance, how Alten stuffs his usual motifs in his latest novel. It’s not enough for “Goliath” to be an incredibly powerful submarine being controlled by a renegade scientist and a pre-sentient artificial intelligence. The submarine is shaped like a Manta Ray, and its smaller submarine drones look like… sharks. After Alten’s previous Meg and The Trench, which featured giant sharks and impressive underwater wildlife details, it’s not as if he’s stretching.

This being said, Alten has obviously read a lot of military thrillers: his heart is definitely at the first place and so is his imagination. While the technical exactitude of the novel often seems stretched beyond any reasonable measure at times, Alten is first and foremost an entertainer, and he certainly delivers the goods. The opening chapter features the spectacular destruction of an American carrier group, and the action scene that details the escape of the sole survivor is as exciting as anything I remember reading in the genre recently.

Alas, Alten isn’t as skilled when comes the time to add Science Fiction in the mix. The SF-themed sections of Goliath, featuring yet another AI that flips out and wants to eradicate humanity, read like an intentional take-off on Frankenstein (Oooh, that lightning-strikes scene! It’s ALIIIVE!) mixed with a bio-mechanical monsters that seems poorly stolen from the the awful movie VIRUS. Everything’s just too easy to this mad scientist, able to design several Manhattan-sized projects single-handedly. (I can only guess it’s true when they say that being evil gives you extraordinary powers.)

There are also problems with the narrative arc of the novel. The background relationship between protagonists Rochelle Jackson and Gunnar Wolfe are mostly useless, and so is Jackson’s presence in the opening of the novel. Alten succumbed to the usual lure of making everything interconnected, making the universe of his novel look much smaller than it ought to be.

But sacrificing plausibility, be it in domains like military technology, scientific accuracy, characterization or geopolitical politics, can be forgiven if the result is interesting. And for all of its faults (and the slight last-third lull), Goliath delivers the goods when it comes to pure reading fun. So maybe, despite changing geopolitics, there’s hope for techno-thrillers after all. If the current world situation doesn’t make any sense, maybe they don’t have to either.

Meg, Steve Alten

Doubleday, 1997, 278 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-48905-6

There are two ways to write a novel. The first one is to reach into your personal experiences, pull out your opinions and emotions about life and write a honestly moving narrative that works for you first, and everyone else after. The second way is to tailor a product to the marketplace, designing the flow of the novel to appeal to a large public and really aim for a mass audience. In a nutshell, that’s supposed to be the difference between “literature” and “bestsellers”.

Self-proclaimed artists will try to make you believe that writing literature is considerably harder than writing a bestseller. But is it really so?

While there is some truth to the widely-held observation that bestsellers are more formulaic than other types of fiction, it still takes great skill to put together the elements of a successful mass-market novel.

It’s almost a given that first, a bestseller needs an intriguing premise. Meg not only promises something similar to JAWS by loosening a shark upon an unsuspecting human population, but actually promises more than JAWS by featuring something much bigger: A twenty-ton, sixty-foot-long Carcharodon Megalodon. “Meg” to its friends. An escaped Jurassic-era relic of unheard-of proportions: It features a head as big as a pickup truck armed with nine-inch-long teeth “with the serrated edges of a stainless-steel knife.” [P.4] And, being a shark, it has all of the superior perceptive and motor skills of the world’s most enduring predator.

The Meg is introduced in the first two chapters. The human characters come much later. There’s the brilliant-but-flawed protagonist Jonas Taylor (no points for predicting what happens to a hero with a surname like that,) a paleontologist with a deep-reaching trauma. There’s his wife, an ambitious journalist with plans to discredit her husband in order to divorce him with justification. (No point for guessing what happens to such a conniving woman.) There’s Terry Tanaka, a young Asian woman with something to prove. Plus the usual array of colorful supporting characters, whether they’re allies or not. They’re realized competently, well-within the usual standards of the genre.

What happens with this premise and these characters is, like you’d expect, a book-long monster hunt. First Jonas has to go to the Meg, deep down at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean. Then the Meg has to escape its natural habitat and wreak havoc, first in Hawaii then along the Californian coast. It’s all very exciting, just as we’d expect it.

Ultimately, thrillers like Meg can be evaluated on their potential cinematographic strengths. And that where this novel truly shines. By the time one throwaway scene near the end basically destroys nine news helicopters in a mid-air crash, you can only grin in sadistic delight and buy the movie rights. A shark with a head as big as a pickup truck makes for memorable scenes!

The remainder, characters, dialogue and psychological unsophistication, is just dressing on the cake. Meg isn’t JAWS, but it’s good enough to be a worthwhile read on its own. “Two Words: JURASSIC SHARK” says the end-cover blurb. Not a bad review, in a nutshell.

[May 2007: I really tried to enjoy the next two entries in the Meg series, but they illustrate what happens to a good concept when you wring it dry. Both The Trench and Primal Waters fall into the trap ofdoing the same thing over and over again: The Meg gets loose, the Meg reappears and eats people, the Meg is captured, killed or driven away. Wash, Rinse, Repeat. Primal Waters is a bit more interesting than the second tome thanks to some easy pot-shots at reality TV and a delirious scene involving baseball fans, but that’s about it. Plus, there’s something depressing about each novel beginning by driving accursed protagonist Jonas Taylor deeper in despair in order to give him some dramatic stakes. Alten: Let. It. Go.]