Alien Harvest (Aliens, Book 5)
by Robert Sheckley
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Aliens Novels: Book 5, Alien Harvest / 0-553-56441-2
The alien war is over, humanity is struggling to rebuild again, and a young entrepreneur (down on his luck and beset by debts) decides to load up some government-supplied cannon-fodder in a spaceship in search of the ultimate ticket to riches: alien royal jelly, worth millions to the pharmaceutical companies on Earth. About 200 pages of the 300 page novel are devoted to mindless plot exposition, until we finally see our first alien about two-thirds into the novel and the dying finally begins.
The first problem with "Alien Harvest" is that the above summary also applies 100% to the book preceding it in the series - "Genocide". Actually, the similarities between the two novels are so striking, that I wonder if perhaps this book was an intentional attempt to blatantly reuse the plot of the fourth (perhaps with the hopes of better writing this time) - a theory that is perhaps backed up by the non-applicable teaser on the cover ("A daring raid on the aliens' home planet!") which does not apply to this particular book at all, but does apply to "Genocide". Whoops! (Unlike "Genocide", "Alien Harvest" is a raid on a planet that is not the aliens' home world.)
Unfortunately, changing authors and keeping the plot line did nothing to improve the end result. The writing is cliched, hackneyed, and terrible. And while the cringe-inducing prose is slightly *better* than the absolute train-wreck that was "Genocide", that doesn't mean the end result is even remotely readable. To wit, here are some things that are horribly wrong with "Alien Harvest":
1. The details of a story should at least attempt to line up with the details laid down in previous books - and if they don't, discrepancies should be explained. Exhibit A, far too much is made of the token android who is a carbon-copy of Data from Star Trek. He doesn't look quite human, his movements are a little too mechanical, and he has no feelings but is endlessly fascinated by them. Except that we know from "Earth Hive" that android technology has advanced to the point that androids are completely indistinguishable from real humans. No explanation is given for this, even though it would be easy enough to do so (Earth's technology has been decimated by the war, or perhaps people didn't like the realistic androids, etc.).
Exhibit B, the aliens act completely 'off' in this book - to the point where I felt the author had perhaps never seen an alien movie or read an alien book. Royal jelly, which was a bad plot idea in the first place but apparently we're stuck with it now, can now be harvested directly from the bodies of drone aliens. Which makes zero sense, because royal jelly is produced by the queen for the baby aliens, so it's ridiculous that a drone would just tuck some jelly in their carapace before going for a walkabout outside the hive. Additionally, facehuggers are now employed *in battle*, in extremely confusing sequences where the attacking drone "released the facehugger" - are they carrying them into battle now? Is the facehugger emerging from the drone's body? Has Sheckley even *seen* one of the movies?
2. A futuristic dystopia should *feel* like a futuristic dystopia. Being reminded every 20 minutes that there's been a war recently that decimated the planet and wiped out 80% of humanity doesn't do much good when the author has done no thinking at all about what that means. Let me help you, Sheckley: You know what a species-wide Diaspora and the near-annihilation of the human race means? It means that the cultural artifacts and ancient knowledge you obsess over on every single page do not exist anymore. There is no "Saudi karate" anymore (not that Saudi gangsters use it now - that's what *guns* are for, what is this, a Jet Lee movie??), there are no rhino-horn ritual knives (and they would be far too valuable to use in actual battle), there are no Laotian machetes (and the idiot who thinks one would be worth anything in battle against an alien deserves what is coming to them), there are no ancient 'Oriental fighting arts' being taught to white orphans in between tea ceremonies. There are no tux'n'tails, no mother-of-pearl cufflinks, and no grandmother's-satin-evening-gown (which fits the female lead perfectly, of course!) hanging out in the attic upstairs. For the female lead to have spent her youth, in "Kill Bill" style, training under ancient masters of the thieving and fighting arts is stupid and feels out of place here - as though it were lifted from a particularly bad Bond novel. Characters who know their own ancestry (Iroquois, really?) should not even EXIST. After 80% of humanity has been wiped out, leaving the remaining 20% to haphazardly scatter, then slowly trickle back - everyone should be 100% mutt at this point. Authors needs to think about a world before they try to build it, because mistakes like these take the reader from the narrative. For that matter, don't emphasize that all the food is pressed soypro bars and then have the crew break out pizza after a long hypersleep. Pizza??
3. A plot should make sense, or at least try to. Here's a little detail to chew on: the crew of this particular expedition is composed largely of convicts, supplied by the government as cannon-fodder, much the same way that convicts used to work on chain-gangs. The convicts volunteer because whether they escape or serve their time, they earn their freedom. Except, halfway through the novel, suddenly they have a bleeding union, with rules (!) about which areas of the ship can't be monitored by the officers and guards because prisoners deserve privacy in order to plot mutinies and make escape plans. That's not just bad writing - that's Very Bad Writing. Any author worth their salt should be able to set up a mutiny without providing a unmonitored mess hall packed to the brim with heavily-armed and unsupervised violent convicts.
4. A book shouldn't feel like the chapters were written in random order and then pieced together at a later date. Why do certain events happen at random? Why do characters have the same conversations over multiple chapters as though the conversations had not already happened (like the captain informing the ship owner that the mutineers have taken the last escape pod, twice)? Why do the survivors decide, near the end, that the safest place for them is on top of the alien hive? Why do the characters know at the beginning of the novel that the planet is not the alien home world, but forget that later? Why is an 'ultrasonic suppressor' something that the characters have never seen or heard of before, yet in the next chapter they are able to identify the crucial equipment of one by its serial number? Why, for the love of Pete, does a planet with searing hot winds and zero vegetation suddenly have an impenetrable blanket of wet mist??
5. A plot should be compelling, and the reader should have a reason to care about the characters. Actually, in this regard, Sheckley manages slightly better than predecessor Bischoff. Whereas Bischoff tried to maintain interest by having his characters angst constantly about sex, Sheckley goes the route of 'will the main character find a cure for his illness and get with the girl he loved at first sight'. Unfortunately, the underlying 'steal royal jelly for money' plot just falls so flat that no attempt at character involvement can save it.
Having thought about this in connection with "Genocide", I think the reason these books fail so fundamentally is because the alien movies are about something very different. Whereas "Genocide" and "Alien Harvest" are motivated by greed and hatred, the actual alien movies are about closed spaces, fear, survival instincts, and the desire to protect the helpless. When Ripley and her companions face aliens, they do so because they've been trapped and can't escape - not because they were stupid enough to waltz into a hive, even knowing precisely what awaited them. We worry about Ripley and those she strives to protect because we want them to be safe and to survive. Fundamentally, we connect with them. It is much harder to connect with a bunch of yahoos who let their greed override their common sense. This is why the 'greedy character' almost always dies badly in movies, and almost always without the pity of the audience. Fill up a whole novel with that sort of character and you have a novel full of people the reader doesn't care about.
One last word about the writing in "Alien Harvest": it's awful. I can only pick a few gems to quote here (more's the pity), but these two are, I think, my favorite:
** "Trouble is my real middle name," [Badger] liked to say. "Let me show you how I spell it." And then he'd punctuate his remark for you with his fists.
** "The time for words is past. The torpedo that puts paid to your pretensions is now coming toward you at a speed well below that of light, but fast enough, I think you'll find."
"Torpedo? How dare you, sir!"
I swear I am not making those up.
Bottom line: If you *must* read either "Genocide" or "Alien Harvest", I recommend picking only one to read, not both, since they have almost identical plot lines. It's tricky to say which one to chose - "Genocide" is painfully juvenile, mind-numbingly stupid, and populated with characters so hateful that I wanted them to die. Whereas "Alien Harvest" is deathly dull, disjointed, and has enough bad cultural cliches to fill three full Bond movies. I'd say go with "Alien Harvest", but only because it didn't contain the phrase "hump like horny bunnies", unlike "Genocide".
~ Ana Mardoll
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