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Sarah's Landing - 1

by Elena Dorothy Bowman

(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 cover scantechnology 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 and copy-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 there.

(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 well.

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.

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