Sarah's Landing - 1
(iUniverse, $17.95, 310 pages, paperback; 2002)
As I've remarked in these pages before [Yawn -- Ed.], the recent
boom in vanity publishing through the technology
of print-on-demand (PoD) has had both advantages and disadvantages.
The advantages centre on the fact that self-publishing writers don't
have to consider the commercial preconceptions of editors and publishers.
It matters not one whit to them if their novel fits snugly into any
predefined marketing niche. This opens the door not just for a flood
of the direst writing but also for a steady and sometimes quite strong
flow of the very best, most exciting and most adventurous writing --
certainly within our genre. To be sure, one might have to put up with
some interesting spelling; but among these books you can find new ideas,
new experiments ... and a lack of the formulaic approach that is killing
stone dead so much of the supposedly speculative fiction being issued
by the major commercial houses (among whose editors there are, it should
be firmly stated, some glorious exceptions).
The disadvantages centre on almost exactly the same fact.
Time after time, reading the output from such vanity presses as iUniverse
and xLibris it is extremely obvious why no commercial house would touch
this book with a bargepole. But let's leave such cases to one side.
Instead let's think of the books where the primary disadvantage of self-publishing
is most evident: those where, as you read them, you have the maddening
sense that there's a pretty good book struggling to be set free, and
that what it needed to set it free were the attentions of an editor
Sarah's Landing - 1 is such a book.
At the copy-editing level it contains untold examples of spelling errors,
typographical errors, repetition and downright clumsiness, while the
punctuation appears to have been applied with a clogged salt cellar
-- stingily in most places, with a sudden rush in a few others, but
never with very much semblance of intention.
But it's at the editing level that it suffers most, as we shall see...
In the year 2055 Joshua Morgan is the astronaut who was left behind
-- because of a sudden unexplained ear infection -- when, a few years
ago, the starship Earth Star-1 set off on its maiden voyage.
Powered by a brand-new and little understood hyperdrive, Earth Star-1
vanished in a burst of light just after entering hyperspace. No one
at home can now remember the details of the hyperdrive's workings, and
all the plans for its construction have disappeared. Occasionally people
wonder if Allen -- the inventor of the hyperdrive, who vanished with
Earth Star-1 and whose credentials no one at SICOM (read NASA)
thought to check when they employed him because he was such a genius
an' all -- might have had something to do with the mystery.
Well, of course he did. He was a member of an alien species
so astonishingly humanoid that they can even breed with us, the Theonians.
The Theonians have long been in a state of cultural and psychological
moribundity. For a long while they've been purloining humans -- including
many of the crew of the Eldridge, the ship that had all that
trouble as the subject of the Philadelphia Experiment -- and carting
them off to the planet Theon for intermarriage and interbreeding: the
Theonians may have incredible mental powers, teletransporting themselves
here and there at will, but Earthmen, you see, bonk better. "The women
are certainly happier these days than before the arrival of our first
visitors," pronounces alien leader Heron.
Joshua, investigating mysterious disappearances, is drawn to the coastal
New Jersey small town of Sarah's Landing, from where a disproportionate
number of people have gone missing. In fact, as the locals say, the
vanishings all seem to happen from one particular building, in which
Joshua promptly rents himself an office -- but not before he and rangy
redhead telepath Alexandra have become lovers.
When Alexandra hops off to New York for a few days, Joshua discovers
where all those missing persons have gone: to Theon. There he discovers
he can do things like fly before being dragooned into Theonian society
and told to forget his true love, Alexandra: Heron's daughter, Adrianne,
is now of age to become his new lover. Since she's if anything even
more heart-wrenchingly sensational than Alexandra, Joshua dutifully
acquiesces ... although able to maintain sporadic telepathic contact
with Alexandra, even managing on one occasion to teleport himself home
for a quick night of passion.
The net result is that both women become pregnant by him roughly simultaneously.
Moreover, their fetuses are capable of telepathic communication as well...
Oh, did I forget to mention that all this while Earth has been in radio-type
contact with another alien species, the Crlllions, of planet
Crlllion? That's because the author does as well, until page 243, where
the fact is introduced almost as an aside. Indeed, although we aren't
told this until even later in the book, it was to Crlllion that Earth
Star-1 was sent, at the suggestion of the Crlllions. Obviously (by
now) the starship vanished from human ken because the Theonians nabbed
it -- indeed, they were responsible for it in the first place, because
Allen's commission was to deliver home a nice big consignment
of Earthlings all in one fell swoop. But that wasn't the only
reason the Theonians seized the vessel: late, late in the book they
tell Joshua that they were saving humanity from itself, because all
the Crlllions really want to do with the other species they contact
is lure them to Crlllion and eat them, to make up for the food shortages
(As an aside, think of the name "Crlllion". Since it must be a phonetic
rendition of the name the aliens call themselves -- unless, miraculously,
they use the Roman alphabet -- where the hell did that triple-"l" come
from? Wouldn't the name, in English, be spelled "Krillian", or something
like that? Perhaps the author thinks giving the aliens a real weirdo
unpronounceable name will make them seem somehow more alien.)
So you see the disadvantages of not having an editor? The genetics,
economics and logistics of all this plot -- not to mention the astronomy
-- are completely haywire. The technology of the year 2055 is a bizarre
mixture of incredibly futuristic (viz the ftl starship) and 20th-century:
videophones have only just recently been introduced to the world of
2055. When the starship is somewhere at the edge of the solar system
preparing for the transition to hyperspace, there's no time lag in the
radio messages to and from Ground Control in Houston. The Crlllions
are described as cannibals because they'll eat humans; of course, they're
not -- they'd be cannibals if they ate other Crlllions. And anyway the
Crlllions must be crazy to think importing a few hundred Earthlings,
even as breeding stock, will solve a planet-wide food shortage; and
wouldn't it be a whole lot cheaper and easier to grow more cows? The
beautiful and sensuous Alexandra, aged 24, is a virgin when Joshua meets
her. Humans and Theonians have identical anatomies, physiologies and
even DNA. And so on, and on, and on.
Perhaps the epitome of the torrent of scientific illiteracy comes when
Joshua first sets eyes on the Theonians' big central power-generating
unit. Not long arrived from an Earth whose technology is little different
from today's, he takes one glance and thinks:
This must be the ultimate in fluid mechanics and matter anti-matter
power generation ever conceived. The Theonians must be tapping the
core of the planet Theon.
Well, if you can recognize a matter-antimatter power generator you're
a whole lot cleverer than I am. If you can conceive a generating system
that combines fluid mechanics and matter-antimatter reactions you're
a whole lot cleverer than I am. If you can work out how to mine antimatter
from the core of your planet you're a whole lot cleve ... oh, actually
you're not, because either your planet doesn't have any antimatter in
its core or it's a rapidly expanding cloud of incandescent gas by now.
The ending of the book is entirely arbitrary. It just stops, more or
less in mid-sequence, with none of the plot-threads resolved. There
are, apparently, three further volumes in the saga to come; even so,
this abrupt closure is unforgivable. To be sure, it's fair play to end
one volume of a series such that the reader is left gasping for more;
to leave the novel effectively unfinished is not.
With a plot that holds together with about as much conviction as the
hypothetical antimatter-cored planet, with an enormous amount of clumsy
writing, and with much more besides, by all the rules Sarah's Landing
- 1 should be an out-and-out bad novel, and I wouldn't be wasting
my time reviewing it.
But the curious thing is that it's not. Fairly frequently, while wading
through all the rest, one realizes that bits of it are working quite
well. Joshua's discovery of the massive alien complex seemingly under
the building in Sarah's Landing is really quite absorbing, as are the
early stages of his training in Theonian-style mental powers. Alexandra
emerges as a real person, and so to a lesser extent does Adrianne; one
begins to care about both of them. It's quite fun that the Philadelphia
Experiment is thrown into the soup. Just every now and then there's
a nice coup of the imagination, or a sweetly perceptive turn of phrase.
In short, the very fact that I got to the end of the book says something
for it -- more than that, it would actually make the basis for a pretty
good skiffy movie. (And low-budget, too, since you'd not need to spend
anything on rubber suits for the aliens!) Given the attentions -- the
very diligent and extensive attentions -- of a competent editor to paper
over all those plot inconceivabilities, Sarah's Landing - 1 could
perhaps be better than just rescuable: it might actually turn out very
As for the lack of a copy-editor (and proofreader)? Well, although
one can blame vanity publishing for much of this, Bowman herself must
not go completely without criticism. This text seems not to have been
checked by anyone -- not even given a read-through by its author.
I could hardly recommend that you rush out and buy Sarah's Landing
- 1, but the possibility remains that Bowman may, one day, either
find a good editor or learn to edit herself -- and preferably both.
In that event, she may be one to watch.
Review by John Grant.