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Terror Firma by Matthew Thomas
(HarperCollins Voyager, £5.99, 437 pages, paperback; published 2 January 2001.)

The premise of this book is that every conspiracy theory cover scanyou ever heard about is true, and in fact all part of a single conspiracy theory, which is that a small coterie of unimaginably wealthy humans rule the world with the assistance of alien UFOnauts, whose own ultimate objective is conquest of our planet. Approximately.

Investigating this state of affairs are: a rogue US Government covert operative, Frank; the editor of a small-circulation UFO magazine, Dave; and Dave's permanently off-again tv production assistant girlfriend, Kate. They are opposed and eventually (when he rebels against his masters) assisted by the coterie's even more covert enforcement officer, Becker. The trail takes them all over most of the globe until they reach a final cataclysmic confrontation with the aliens on a remote mountainside in the distant, backward nation of Urgistan.

This all sounds like the recipe for either nonstop pulse-pounding hilarity or a David Baldacci novel, right? Unfortunately, wrong. Well, Terror Firma is certainly funnier than a Baldacci novel, except for those with the most masochistic sense of humour, but pulse-pounding hilarity it ain't.

Matthew Thomas is an author desperately in need of an editor. In the first place he needs an editor to trim down his text, primarily with the aim of sharpening the jokes. There is hardly a joke in this book that is not pounded to death by a torrential rain of auctorial diarrhea, hardly a potentially witty one-liner that is not remorselessly extended to fill half a page. One is reminded of the misconception small children have that, if a joke is funny when you tell it once, it's twice as funny if you immediately repeat it, three times as funny if you ... and so on until the adults have no recourse except the coalhole.

Examples:

With a screeching wheel-spin they made off into the comforting darkness. It seemed fortunate that Frank had an even higher tolerance to man-made drugs than he did to the worst ravages of Watcher biotechnology. Frank's years as a gutter junkie finally began to pay off. His body had obtained more than just an immunity to just about every infectious disease known to man, plus a few that weren't; it had learned how to survive. Under a dosage which would have killed stone-dead a normal person, not to mention a tougher-than-average African bull-elephant, his battered system established some sort of equilibrium. The gale of fresher air, blowing headlong into his face, did its part too. After thirty minutes of Kate's high-speed driving Frank seemed to be making a tentative recovery.

In other words, thanks to his past drug-use and the gale in his face, Frank recovered in half an hour from a dose that would have killed an elephant. Another:

Not that their strategy, as it stood, was likely to win any prizes. If the French Foreign Legion started awarding Palme d'Ors [sic], in the category of "Best Foreign-Language Military Operation", then General Custer and the Seventh Cavalry were more likely to be getting a phone call and an all-expenses-paid trip to the Riviera.

Overwriting of this sort is forgivable if it occurs a few times in a humorous novel, but not if examples -- often more than one -- can be plucked from virtually every page.

That little parenthetical "sic" is worth noting, because another reason Thomas needs an editor is to clear up his grammar and especially his spelling. An example of the shoddy grammar is shown serendipitously in the first extract cited above:

It seemed fortunate that Frank had an even higher tolerance to man-made drugs than he did to the worst ravages of Watcher biotechnology.

What's meant, of course, is that it was fortunate that Frank seemed to have this tolerance. But the spelling errors are a greater concern, especially the proper nouns. It starts with the cover, which refers to "Rockwell" (perhaps the train of thought is that James Garner, of Rockford Files fame, starred in one of the tv movies about Roswell?), and goes on throughout the book: Richard "Millhouse" Nixon, the "Illuminanti", a "femme fatal", "hair-brained", "swotted" (for "swatted"), "grizzly" (for "grisly"), "least" (for "lest"), the "Templers" ... Two famously dead rock stars are referred to in a single phrase as "Janice" and "Jimmy". I did like the idea of the "spring role": alas, poor #46, I knew it well.

Some of these are repeated numerous times, so obviously it's not the typesetter to blame.

A third reason why Thomas needs an editor is to guide him towards the notion that, as well as the short-term jokes and one-liners, there should be the "macro-jokes" -- to simplify, those jokes for which the foundations are laid several chapters before the punchlines are delivered. One could claim, somewhat desperately, that the book as a whole is such a macro-joke; but otherwise the text is marked by their absence, and thereby lacks the main device used by comic writers to keep the reader turning the pages. It's rather as if a thriller writer presented nothing but nonstop action passages without any linking rationale, without any build-up to each coup de théâtre; the pyrotechnics soon become pretty boring.

The shame of all this is that it is perfectly obvious from Terror Firma that Thomas does possess comic flair. This is not an unintelligent book. But the net effect of its amazing superfluity of flaws is to render all its attempts at shafts of wit less rapier than blunderbuss. To give a charitable estimate, it raised a smile perhaps half a dozen times in 437 pages. That's less than one smile per 70 pages. Not a high strike-rate.


Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 9 March 2002