Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Book Review | Cowboys and Aliens by Joan D. Vinge

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1875, New Mexico Territory.

A stranger with no memory of his past stumbles into the hard desert town of Absolution. The only hint to his history is a mysterious shackle that encircles one wrist. What he discovers is that the people of Absolution don't welcome strangers, and nobody makes a move on its streets unless ordered to do so by the iron-fisted Colonel Dolarhyde. It's a town that lives in fear.

But Absolution is about to experience fear it can scarcely comprehend as the desolate city is attacked by marauders from the sky. Screaming down with breath-taking velocity and blinding lights to abduct the helpless one by one, these monsters challenge everything the residents have ever known.

Now, the stranger they rejected is their only hope for salvation. As this gunslinger slowly starts to remember who he is and where he's been, he realizes he holds a secret that could give the town a fighting chance against the alien force. With the help of the elusive traveller Ella, he pulls together a posse comprised of former opponents - townsfolk, Dolarhyde and his boys, outlaws and Apache warriors - all in danger of annihilation. United against a common enemy, they will prepare for an epic showdown for survival.


I don't tend to read terribly many novelisations.

In my admittedly limited experience, those novelisations I have read have been tolerable at best, and at worst... well, there's no need to be rude. But something about Joan D. Vinge's adaptation of the script for Cowboys & Aliens - originally written by far too many people to list here, but numbering among them Fringe show-runners Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, as well as Damon Lindelof of Lost fame - something about the Cowboys & Aliens novelisation spoke to me of promise. Vinge, after all, though absent the genre and in fact the fiction industry entire since Tangled Up In Blue came out in the year 2000, because of an horrific accident, is a Hugo award-winning novelist, and fondly remembered by many for The Snow Queen, her take on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale which took the trophy home twenty years before the new millennium.

Passing strange, then, that Vinge would opt to tie her return to an adaptation of a speculative Summer blockbuster; passing strange, but only that, thankfully, because though I haven't as yet caught the movie proper, having been with Jake and Ella all the way through to their last hurrah courtesy this very graceful novelisation, it's easy enough to see the attraction of what is in short a rollicking good example of action-oriented sf.

Do I really need to tell you what Cowboys & Aliens is about? Well, no, probably not. But having followed the film's development from the early stages on through its recent release, it still took half of Vinge's novel for the penny to finally drop -- that Cowboys & Aliens isn't just a random pairing of things, a la Snakes on a Plane or some other such silliness, but a play on cowboys and Indians, the children's game... of course!

Cowboys & Aliens stands thus as a neat inversion of the balance of power, a reversal of roles which casts the cowboys are prey rather than predator. As Jake - he isn't a mysterious stranger for long - puts it: "The whole damned United States had nearly killed itself over the right to own someone else's life, back in the War. And now demons were trying to claim this piece of Hell. It made as much sense to him as anything else. Maybe more." (p.173)

Jake is the lone ranger of the piece; a gunslinger wanted dead or alive, but for what? Well he can't rightly recall, and in point of fact we're as in the dark as he, because the book opens on him waking up from some untold trauma on the road to Absolution, whereupon his talents are immediately taken advantage of. Poor Jake can't seem to remember anything other than how to shoot his six-gun -- though he sure can shoot that thing. Which comes in darned handy when - would you credit it? - aliens arrive.

In the Old West.

So it is that he becomes "a running man, fleeing demons... or a wanted man, riding straight toward them." (p.104) And for all that this novelisation seems sometimes beholden to the strictly straightforward structure of the film, as I understand it, to a linear series of set-pieces strung end to end like scalps on a rope, Cowboys & Aliens really is a great read, particularly on those rare occasions when the roaring action subsides for a while, and Vinge can indulge in measured descriptions of the sights and sounds of "this land only an Apache could love." (p.47) She remains, needless to say, an excellent storyteller, squeezing real feeling and meaning out of even the simplest encounters, and offering up such spare but beautiful prose in each and every quiet moment as to leave one lusting after the next lull.

Of course there's a bit of melodrama, here and there, and some inexplicable exposition, and I would've been happier if the narrative's breckneck pace had come part and parcel with a few more moments for the author to work out her wonderful wordsmithing -- but these are really no more than niggles. Cowboys & Aliens by Joan D. Vinge is not then a perfect novel, nor do I expect the film proper to be such a specimen; what it is is easily one of the very best novelisations I've ever read. A very elegant adaptation, in short, marking the return of a talent too long gone from our beloved genre.


Cowboys & Aliens
by Joan D. Vinge

UK Publication: August 2011, Tor
US Publication: August 2011, Tor

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