Publication Year: 1980 (illustrated edition 2018)
Tags: Science Fiction, Horror, Overrated
An academic research crew of nine boards a star-bound freighter called the Nightflyer in search of the volcryn — legendary beings who have existed for millennia, passing through the galaxy at sub-light speeds, a mystery hinted at in the writings of many civilizations but never yet proved. As the journey proceeds, the researchers come to wonder more about the ship itself instead of the object of their pursuit. What they’re searching for may be far less of a mystery than what is taking them there.
Sometimes, a film is better than its book. Stephen King is said to have liked the film version of his novel The Dead Zone better than his own book, which he described as being “too slow.” This book has been made into a series for the SyFy channel and NetFlix (I’m still not quite clear who owns what or which will show it first); I have not watched it yet. I have, however, watched the 1987 film (Michael Praed, Catherine Mary Stewart, dir: Robert Collector, as TC Blake), and I found it to be worth at least four of five stars. This book, however, is far less intriguing.
There is a joke, made in regard to works like Game Of Thrones, to the effect of “George R. R. Martin and Neil Gaiman walk into a bar. Everyone you love dies.” First spoiler: That’s pretty much true here, except that you won’t love any of these characters. Each is a two-dimensional function with an outrageously absurd name attached. Save for the names of the captain (Royd Eris) and the professor in charge (D’Brannin), the names in the film were made into something one could at least relate to.
The film also provides the various characters with motivations that make more sense than those of the characters in the book. Here, the characters don’t truly develop, and when their various forms of paranoia cause them to do the things that they do, it’s rather like the author tossed them into a cup and assigned the motivations randomly. Although I can recall various actions being taken (largely because I saw them approximated in the film), I can’t begin to tell you who took those actions, nor precisely why. The characters themselves are of such little value that even the list of them found in Wikipedia can only cite them by such vital bits of character development as “wears a jumpsuit and never washes” and another who “does not get along with the other scholars.” Even the lead, Melantha Jhirl, is memorable mostly for her repeated assertions that she is “the advanced model” (or “superior” or “improved” or some such adjective that, like the characters, fade swiftly from my memory).
The story itself is largely boring for the first half of the book. Almost nothing at all happens, beyond setting up a sense of general foreboding that is only there if you’ve seen the 1987 film first; that alone kept me going, as I knew what was supposed to happen. Then, as I was reading along, I was stunned to discover that Martin appears to have stolen, quite blatantly and obviously, an event from the early moments of the David Cronenberg film Scanners (1981). (The publication date of the novella is 1980, but this revised edition appears to have included material not found in the original publication, made up of shorter works.) Second spoiler: As the old joke goes, it’s all fun and games until someone’s head explodes. Spoiler 2.5: It’s someone who, frankly, needs to be kept alive longer in order to fill a more important function in the development of the plot line.
The plot of the novel is convoluted, and the revelations and explanations to explain the plot are almost a case of too little too late. For the 1987 film version, scriptwriter Robert Jaffe found intelligent ways to cut out a myriad superfluities in Martin’s novel, creating a far more believable means of bringing the story to a satisfactory conclusion (with a few exceptions; the film isn’t perfect either). He corrected a simple issue of Martin’s discussing a person’s psychic abilities as being classified, with a “class one” being the highest, thus having to resort to a “better than class one” but being unable to create a sufficient order of magnitude beyond it. Jaffe created a “class ten” as being the best level a human psychic could be, then discussing the issues of a significantly more powerful psychic possibly categorized as a class twenty.
The MacGuffin of the book is the volcryn which, even at the conclusion of the book, is almost worse than superfluous. In the film, it’s left as a mystery; in the novel (Third Spoiler), it’s a mindless thing that simply eats its way across the galaxy with no purpose, no value, not even truly anything mysterious save that it is the final consumption (literally as well as spiritually) of its most devoted fan, D’Brannin. In the final pages of the book (Fourth Spoiler), we find the remaining survivor and semi-survivor continuing observations of the volcryn from afar, playing chess until the final days of the final survivor come to a close, and the ship is repaired enough to be sent, its own Flying Dutchman, toward the world of Avalon, where perhaps someone will take all their data and go better-equipped to find the elusive volcryn after all.
For my writer’s buck, that’s a sad attempt to make the MacGuffin into something it’s not. As Alfred Hitchcock told us, “The MacGuffin is the thing that the spies are after but the audience don’t care.” (from David Boyd’s 1995 book, Perspectives on Alfred Hitchcock) Trying to make the volcryn relevant, important, or even simply tying the book together from front (the comments about the volcryn) to the back, is demonstrative of poor writing technique. I’ll forgive Martin that much; my own early works aren’t necessarily my best examples. This particular volume is one that needs to be avoided. Perhaps this new series on NetFlix-then-SyFy will let the story shine to its author’s best vision. If, however, this book is his best vision, I recommend to him new glasses, and that the rest of us look anywhere but here.