Sunday, February 29, 2004

It's not fair - I've run out fo stuff to read. So in an attempt to fill the void left by A Suitable Boy, I read Prey[1] by Michael Crichton. Which turns out to be as grap[2] as most as his other books (you'd think reading Congo might have countered the impression I got from Jurassic Park, but no, I remained optimistic).

[1] The first public review seems to have got the same impression of the book as I did. Even the site's reviewer has a hard job not being critical about something they are trying to flog.
[2] That's supposed to be crap, but somehow I mistyped or misspelt it. But grap sounds more apt for describing the book, so I'll leave it in there.

To write a Michael Crichton book, take one newish technology (for instance genetic engineering or nanotechnology) and find a couple of doom-mongering papers to quote from.
Now you have the "authentic" background, take one semi-knowledgeable outsider (who strangely is the only person alive who can do what they are about to be asked to do), and have them be informed that someone somewhere (preferably somewhere utterly isolated) has gone beyond the normal bounds of research. They've advanced to a stage they are not quite ready for yet.
Bring in the (male) hero, who happens to have some form of history with members of the research group (especially the females). By introducing the outsider, this allows every member of the group to have to explain what it is that they do, and so the reader learns the plot and background through the dialogue.
So far we have a group who advanced too far, and now have a problem, and we have an outsider come to solve the problem.
At this point at least one of the research group should be deceiving the outsider. There should also be some ancillary problems mentioned at this point.
The outsider sets about trying to fix the problem, but never seems to get enough information. The outsider should at some point realise they have been manipulated into doing what they thought was right at the time, but actually helps those in the group who are increasingly being seen as baddies.
There should be an assistant with whom the outsider can communicate in order to try and assess who is a goodie, who is a baddie and who is the fat, lazy, incompetent one. They should do this through long-winded conversations, and never rely on coded body-language, or shortened dialogues like "So, if he's...", "Yep", "That mean...?", "With the..." "Damn", that would result if two people were thinking of the same things.
There is a group effort to try and solve the problem, but the baddies still aren't helping, and may well be acting against the outsider's group. Some of the group should die, through cowardice and being picked off individually. There should be lots of tense waiting.
Eventually the baddies come out as baddies, the goodies get separated and nearly die (but both assume the other is dead or caught), and the baddies probably get killed in the process.
Above all there should be a sequence of handy coincidences that allow the outsider and accomplice to escape the peril (and live happily ever after). The peril get destroyed (through cunning use of the previously mentioned problems), but not quite enough to prevent a sequel.

Formulaic? Not at all. It doesn't help that in Prey the characters seem shallow caricatures. The apparently disillusioned family-man discussing pasta and nappies in between being called upon to save the world. The good-looking wonderkid who can't ever admit defeat. The quiet resourceful Chinese biologist. The ever-fighting brats, which come in two flavours: sarcastic and oafish. The career driven wife destroyed by work.

So there's a plot that one can see a mile off, a background topic haphazardly slung across a formula, and cast that one doesn't really care about. It's one of those books that makes me think "I could write something better than this, but if I did I wouldn't be happy with it. I'd know it was still junk".

So if you're a fan of "paint by numbers" fiction, where you can still see the numbers through the paint, read it. For the rest of the world, try writing your own, it'll be more fun, no matter how bad it is.

Other Stuff:
It has been drawn to my attention that the world remains curiously uniformed at the wonderful settlement of Carbondale in Illinois. It's got trees and everything (and it's got definitions and permits for them). It has a year 2000 population that is smaller then the 1990 one. It has a university with an enrolment that's nearly as big as the town itself. It has rising unemployment and lower than state average house prices. It is also is near various places that feature in The Simpsons. It is also upstaged by another town of the same name in the Rockies. The Illinois one also apparently has reports of which properties have weeds on their lands. It was the best small city in the state once upon a time. And you're not allowed open containers of alcohol outdoors. No retail licensee or employee or agent of such licensee shall: 1. Serve two (2) or more drinks of alcoholic liquor at one time to one person, except selling or delivering wine by the bottle or carafe; . So how exactly does one buy a round in this place? Oh and you're not allowed to attempt vehicle repair or maintenance on city property, or your own. That include washing your car? But checking the oil is out, as is topping up the wiper fluid? Why does this sound like the arse end of Illinois?
And I thought English councils were batty.

So for some little light relief: what do you get if there are two people swimming along the same line on the bottom of a swimming pool, heading towards each other? Pure utter comedy, especially when both are stubborn and refuse to yield. So they bash their way past each other, making outraged huffs and squawks, and continue on to the other end. Where they then turn round and carry on down the same line. And repeat the earlier scenes. Again and again. Far too funny. Whereas my response to meeting someone coming the other way is either to pass on side of them (usually doing much smaller narrower strokes), or to dive underneath them (this confuses quite a lot of them, especially when I don't come up again for 10 metres). But I gave up after a while on Friday, having attempted to copy someone else's professional turns at the end of the pool (the somersault and twist ones), and got it wrong, and met the floor of the pool very hard and very fast.

Google just wished me "happy leap year". Oh dear, did I miss this? Are we supposed to be sending each other leap year cards now?

Anyhoo, better be going now.

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