Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Armored Vampires

When I was a freshman in college, my best friend from high school handed me worn paperback and said, "Read this. It's the best science fiction story you will ever read." The book was Armor, by John Steakley, and it lived up to its billing. Like Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, its portrait of war and warriors was so vivid that it got lots of cross-over readership and stayed on shelves a long time, until it started being referred to as a "classic." (Of course, any sci-fi paperback that continues to sell for more than ten years probably qualifies, in book marketing lingo, as a "classic.") Armor became one of the few books that I tried to "turn people on" to, something I enjoyed and could usually intuit that other people would enjoy.

So imagine my surprise when, twenty years later, I see the name "John Steakley" on another book at Barnes & Noble. I was in a headlong charge to the bathroom at the time, but I caught it out of the corner of my eye and had to back up five paces to see it again. And it was, of all things, a vampire novel. Ok, I think, I'm hip to vampires, and it's been three years since I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer and at least a twenty years since I touched an Anne Rice novel, so maybe I'm overdue for a dose of slayage. So I bought Vampire$ after three seconds of deliberation.

It was good, but not Armor good. I read it in about a week, which is pretty fast in my current lifestyle. The pace is fast, the mood palpable, the heroes well-developed and thoroughly likeable, the vampires creepy and genuinely scary, even to someone inoculated with lots of vampire lore. For one, these vampires are tough -- no stake-through-the-heart, explode-into-dust routine will do here. More like: dynamite their lair in the middle of the day, hit them with half a dozen harpoons when they crawl out of the rubble, and let the sunlight burn them for several minutes. This book will teach you to fear the coming of night. And the book is full of witty one-liners that would transition well into a Hollywood movie. At one point, the heroes encounter a burly torpedo of a priest guarding the Pope, and one quips, "So, what is the Church's position on steroids?"

So what's not to like? Start with the fact that the main characters, Jack Crow and Felix, have exactly the same names as the main characters as Armor, although they are clearly different people in different times. WTF? There are a few theories to explain why someone would ever do such a thing:
  1. He's so thoroughly invested in these characters that he can't let go of them, can't find it in him to write any others, and so he just carries on with them, hoping no one will notice or care that he's recycling the same names again.
  2. He's so insecure about his ability as a writer that he needs to constantly remind the audience, "Hey, remember, I'm the guy who wrote Armor, ok? You really liked Felix then, right? Ok, trust me on this one, you'll enjoy this."
  3. Some editor commissioned another book about Felix and Jack Crow, and John Steakley wrote a vampire book instead, and the only way he could get out of his contract was to use the same names again.

If all these excuses sound lame, well, yeah, that's the point. Something is out of joint here, which makes it a lot harder to surrender completely to the spell of the book.

Character names are not the only thing that gets recycled. The theme of the book -- the absolute soul-crushing fatigue of constant warfare -- is an imprint taken directly from Armor. But authors can be forgiven for reprising their themes; that's a part of what gives them their style, and if they have anything worth saying, odds are good they will say it more than once. He gets some new ideas in as well. He shows how the burden of war is magnified by the burden of leadership, and the agony of leading others into the teeth of a hopeless battle.

There are a few other flaws . . . the book starts with the sense that the heroes are gritty, worldly mercenaries who kill vampires for money, but somewhere in the middle they morph without explanation into Church-sponsored crusaders who are the ultimate in die-for-the-cause martyrs. Either angle is interesting, but could we please stick to just one? The ending happens just a little too fast and with too much irrelevance to what has come before, in a Stephen King had-a-good-ride-but-now-I-need-to-end-this-somehow kind of way. While the characters are drawn well, their transformations are somewhat unconvincing. But in the end, I still enjoyed myself. B-minus.



Post a Comment

<< Home