“The Island Of Doctor Moreau” by H. G. Wells (1896)

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“I do not propose to add anything to what has already been written concerning the loss of the Lady Vain.”

Some classics really enter the cultural conversation. Most people could probably give a rough summary of what happens in Lord of the Flies or 1984. Others, however, sink a little lower. We know the names, we might be able to pluck out a single detail or two, but the whole plot is only accessible to someone who has gone to the source. The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of those for me. Not as famous as some of H. G. Wells’s other works, the closest I’d got to it before now was a “Treehouse of Horror” episode of The Simpsons. Time to set sail to Noble’s Isle.

Edward Prendick has survived the shipwreck of the Lady Vain, and against all odds is rescued by a ship carrying various wild animals and their keeper, Montgomery. The animal keeper nurses Prendick back to health, but after a dispute with the ship’s captain, Prendick is put ashore with Montgomery and all the animals on an island that he’s never heard of.

Here he meets the enigmatic and sinister Doctor Moreau. This name he knows – Moreau was cast out of London society for his controversial experiments and studies in the field of vivisection. Prendick is not welcome on the island and kept as far away from Moreau and Montgomery as possible, but he soon discovers that this island is not all it appears. It holds a dark and terrifying secret – Doctor Moreau has been playing God.

In the 1890s, it seems that Wells had an obsession with beasts and where humans stood in relation to all over animals. Part of this was probably down to the fact he studied under T. H. Huxley, a disciple of Charles Darwin. In several of his books of the time, he explores the differences between man and beast. In The Time Machine, we see humanity evolve into hideous creatures. In The War of the Worlds, he sees humanity destroyed by alien beasts. Here, two become one, as – and I think the statue of spoilers will cover me on a book that was published over 120 years ago – man and animal have been spliced together to create hideous monsters, neither quite one thing or the other.

All told, I was fairly disappointed with the story. I appreciate it’s “of it’s time” and all that, but there was so much more that could’ve been done with it, I felt, and it all ends on a bit of an anticlimax. Moreau is creepy, but I didn’t feel he got enough page time for us to really come to fear or loathe him, and Prendick is a classically blank Victorian hero, his abstinence from alcohol being one of his few notable traits. The Beast Men are creepy, however, with just enough information given for us to conjure up our own images but not so much that we fully understand what we’re seeing. Special mention to the sloth creature, who is unnerving in a whole other way, if not specifically scary.

An interesting tip into Victorian literature, but there is a reason it doesn’t sit at the top table of the classical canon.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Jurassic Park” by Michael Crichton (1990)

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It's frightening in the dark...

It’s frightening in the dark…

“The tropical rain fell in drenching sheets, hammering the corrugated roof of the clinic building, roaring down the metal gutters, splashing on the ground in a torrent.”

I’m not big on films. I’ve probably covered that a few times before. But one film I do unequivocally love is Jurassic Park. Twenty-two years after the film came out, it still stands up as one of the greats, and the long-awaited fourth installment Jurassic World was just as satisfying to see earlier this year.

It was, therefore, with some trepidation that I approached the novel. I’m one of those people who sits firmly in the camp that declares the book is always better than the film, but on this occasion I was nervous. Was this an example where the book couldn’t hope to live up to the amazing visuals? It couldn’t possibly be that I would enjoy a film more than a book … could it?

For those who have been living under a rock for the last few decades, Jurassic Park is the story of what happens when scientists start playing with genetics. Paleontologist Alan Grant and paleobotanist Ellie Sattler are invited by wealthy eccentric John Hammond to his private island off Costa Rica, told that they will see something that they never could have believed. It turns out that Hammond has been cloning dinosaurs and plans to open up the island as a tourist attraction, Jurassic Park, to the rest of the world. Using DNA found in the blood of insects trapped in amber (the science is, if anything, shaky), Hammond’s scientists have found a way to bring them back to life. He now has to prove to the lawyers and unconventional mathematician Ian Malcolm that the island is completely safe and his Stegosaurs, Tyrannosaurs, Velociraptors and Compsognathus are completely safe. And that nothing can go wrong.

Predictably, it does.

A number of events including a storm, a rouge agent within Hammond’s team, a power shortage, and the unexpected intelligence of the raptors culminate within hours of the visiting team arriving on the island to bring about a disaster unlike any seen before. The humans now just have to survive long enough to get off the island again, all the while dealing with creatures that haven’t been around for over sixty-five million years.

In short, I’m happy to say, the book is better. As always there is a lot more time to expand on things, so there are more characters here, including a vet and a public relations man, who get subsumed into other characters in the film. Most of the key plot points are here, but there are so many more. The book opens with a little girl getting attacked by a Compsognathus on another island, which became part of the second film, and the pterodactyls of the third film, and the river journey of the fourth are here too. The characters that we do recognise are also very different. Ellie Sattler is only twenty-four in the book, Grant is a fan of children from the off, and both Tim and Lex are considerably younger (and unbelievably even more annoying) in the book than the film.

Jp_rexThe biggest stumbling block with the novel though is the fact that you really have to suspend all disbelief. I know that’s necessary for the film, but you still sort of accept it. In here, more emphasis is placed on the science that led them to their current place. While I’m not a biologist by any means, I know that many of the things shown or discussed simply aren’t true, the biggest one being that you can’t extract DNA from amber-trapped mosquitoes! DNA has a half life for a start, so would be long useless by modern day, and besides, getting the DNA would require that insect to have only feasted on one species in its lifetime. Nonetheless, I’m prepared to accept these things because it’s such a tense, interesting book.

Although people’s fascination for dinosaurs will probably never diminish, meaning in that sense the book will never date, the technology in the book does already seem outdated. This is particularly notable when Tim uses a touch screen computer, noting that he’s never seen one before. Then again, this can be refreshingly accurate too, as the book doesn’t claim to take place in the future – it takes place in the 20th century.

Like when I read Forrest Gump, another classic movie of the nineties, the book is really a different beast to the film, although in this case the two share more of the same DNA. It’s compelling and hard to put down, and I found myself fully caught up in it. Ian Malcolm remains an interesting character but even when lying on his death bed, he’s still going on and on about his theories for pages at a time. That’s possibly more unbelievable than the dinosaurs. The most jarring alteration between mediums though is probably John Hammond. In the films, he’s more of a kindly grandfather figure, although one with a clear obsession for what he’s trying to achieve, but in the book he’s blinded to the island’s faults and somewhat nastier, even seeming to turn against his grandchildren by the end.

If you loved the film, you’ll love the book too and despite the danger inherent in the idea, it does make me a little sad that we’ll never see dinosaurs. Mind, that’s probably not a bad thing. Let’s leave them in the imagination where they can take on a life of their own and not chew our faces off.

FILM: “Jurassic World”

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Life, uh, finds a way...

Life, uh, finds a way…

“We have our first genetically modified hybrid.”

This is and, for as long as I keep doing it, will always be primarily a book blog. Books are the main media I consume, so it makes sense to write about them. But believe it or not, I do occasionally experience other things. I’ve already reviewed a show, so now it’s time to bring a film under the spotlight. After all, the blog title says “fiction” – it doesn’t specifically say anything about books. As such, I’m about to review Jurassic World. Before you continue, I’ll just give fair warning that this review will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet, maybe wait before reading on.

So we find ourselves on Isla Nublar, which is now running a fully functioning dinosaur theme park. Our main characters include Zach and Gray, two young boys who have come to the island to experience the magic and wonder, their aunt Claire who is one of the park’s directors and very focused on public opinion and the financial running of the park, and Owen, a trainer who appears to have formed a close bond with the Velociraptors, getting them to obey him.

Because dinosaurs no longer supposedly have the “wow factor” that the park’s bosses want, the scientists, including Dr Henry Wu from the first film, have been cooking up stuff in their lab. They have come up with a new creation, the Indominus rex, a creature based on a Tyrannosaurus rex, but with a whole bunch of other classified animal genetics thrown in. Due to the fact that a theme park with real life dinosaurs in it is never a good idea, this all very quickly goes wrong. The Indominus rex breaks out of her enclosure after showing enough intelligence to trick her human captors, and soon she’s on her way to the centre of the park, where twenty thousand human visitors are located, and it seems that nothing is going to stand in her way.

As a big fan of the first films (well, the first and third ones anyway, I never much cared for the second), I was hugely excited about the prospect of a new film, although also very wary. Thankfully, it’s a really great movie. Considered a sequel to the first film, the original two sequels seem to have been forgotten about, although apparently they are canon just not mentioned.

Jurassic World seems to enjoy throwing in references to the original film and it’s fun to try and spot them all. There’s a guy wearing a shirt with the logo of the original park on it, a repeat of the classic Dilophosaurus moment, someone saying that the park “spared no expense”, and also a prolonged scene in the first visitors’ centre, which appears to have been left to the elements after a very quick evacuation. Despite all this, only three characters make an appearance from the first film – the aforementioned Dr Wu and … I won’t say the other two. You’ll see.

Alright, so the characters are basically stereotypes, but they do get deconstructed throughout and it works well, and the action scenes are second to none. It’s such a beautiful film, I’m happy to believe that the dinosaurs are really there. Do I completely get the notion that someone has managed to (almost at least) tame the raptors? Not really, but it’s a fun idea. The Indominus rex is a thing of wonder, and further emphasises the muddy waters we’re playing in when it comes to genetic experimentation. They’ve even managed to get away with ignoring the last twenty years of dinosaur research and discoveries by handwaving that the dinosaurs may look very different if they had a whole genome to work with, rather than having to fill the missing its in with bits of frog, toad or snake.

If you want an all-action, scary, funny and incredibly entertaining film, then go see it, because it may be full of cliches and archetypes, but no one really minds all that much. It’s a film about dinosaurs – is that not enough?

“The Art Of Destruction” by Stephen Cole (2006)

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art of

Creation and destruction are just two sides of the same coin.

“The darkness plays tricks on you, down here.”

The modern Doctor Who books have become so hit and miss for me lately that when I approach one, I now do so with the caution of a bomb disposal squad. In particular, I wondered about this one as it features Rose who, at the time, I loved, but she has sort of faded for me since characters like Donna and Amy who I found more interesting and engaging. Nonetheless, I pushed on and found a genuinely good story.

The action takes place in Chad, Africa in the year 2118. Africa (there’s a lot of generalisation about the continent within the novel, and very little mention of the fact that there are actually 50-ish countries there) still seems to be poor and much of the land that was before seen as unusable has now undergone tests to grow food for the starving millions around the world. While there have been some successes, and genetic manipulation has come a long way, there are still troubles. A team is now working beneath an active volcano, trying to grow edible fungi.

The Doctor and Rose drop in having picked up on some alien activity, and it soon becomes clear that all is not as it seems. Humans and assorted wildlife are being consumed by apparently living gold and turning into statues that seem determined to protect the caves beneath the volcano. Add to that an alien antiques expert, the beautiful but hidden haul of a race of artists and the incoming threat of more aliens with a score to settle, and things are about to get really messy.

Stephen Cole also wrote the Ninth Doctor novel The Monsters Inside which I read a few years ago and really enjoyed. He is one of the better writers for Doctor Who novels, unlike others. The Doctor seems far more like himself here, as if Cole has got a better grip on a character. It’s also nice to see Rose back again, despite her no longer being my favourite companion. The novel plays up the idea that Rose is the one person that the Doctor fell in love with, for whatever reason, and it isn’t a worse novel for it. The aliens are interesting, the whole concept is smart and original, but it does fall down with, as mentioned above, its continual obsession with the idea that Africa is a country rather than a continent. Also, simply because of the difference in medium, the aliens within will never be as clear or as terrifying as those on the television. Still, there are some funny gags, a lot of action and it feels like it could have been an episode in season two quite easily.

My faith in the Who books is redeemed. For now.

“Next” by Michael Crichton (2006)

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"This novel is fiction, except for the parts that aren't."

“This novel is fiction, except for the parts that aren’t.”

“Vasco Borden, forty-nine, tugged at the lapels of his suit and straightened his tie as he walked down the plush carpeted hallway.”

Some books sit on one’s shelf for mere moments before they are read. Some sit around for a few months before getting picked up. And then there are those that you’ve had so long they went with you to university in 2006 with intentions of being read and returned three years later still not having been opened. Next is one of those.

I’ve found that many of the books I’ve got left on my shelves to read (a number that never seems to diminish with any speed given my almost permanent presence in bookshops) are bigger hardbacks – books that I want to read, but are too big for me to relish the idea of lugging them. Still, the bullet must be bitten so I began with this one – the last novel Crichton wrote before he died.

Typically loaded with scientific jargon and the evidence of research that Crichton was famous for, the book explores almost every possible aspect of genetics. There are so many stories running through this that it is tricky at times to keep up with who’s who and what’s actually going on. Some of the stories link together, but others have characters pop up for one chapter but then are never mentioned again. There’s no rhyme or reason as to the appearance of some of the plotlines either. For example, the Vasco Borden mentioned in the very first line disappears after the prologue and doesn’t appear again for over two hundred pages.

However, there are two primary stories going on. The first is the story of Henry Kendall, a researcher who illegally introduced human genes – his own – into a chimpanzee as an experiment. That was four years ago, and now it turns out that he is the father of a transgenic chimp – a boy half-ape, half-human called Dave. Unable to let his son be put down, he kidnaps him and takes him home to live with his wife and children who, despite the strangeness of the situation, quickly accept Dave.

Meanwhile, a court rules than a company own Frank Burnet’s cells. When the cells they have in storage are contaminated, and Frank goes on the run, the company deems it their right to be able to take the cells however the want. His daughter Alex, for example, has some of the same cells as her father, and if she’s walking around with them, surely that’s theft? Alex and her son Jamie find themselves the target of some bounty hunters who are determined to get hold of those cells.

Other stories weave between these two, including an incredibly intelligent transgenic parrot who can do mental arithmetic and has a knack of repeating the wrong thing at the wrong time, a paedophile who is trying to claim that his genes mean he is not responsible for his behaviour, a researcher who accidentally gives his brother a maturity drug, a doctor who is selling on bones and genetic material without authorisation to whoever seems to ask for it, and an orangutan that has been discovered in Java and appears to swear at anyone who approaches it in fluent Dutch.

Heavy in science, and prone to confusing me with the large accumulation of characters (and the attempt to remember which ones are important and which ones don’t matter in the long run), the book certainly has its flaws, but it is by no means a bad book. Crichton’s talent for getting real research into his books add to the reality. The shocking thing is that, while parts of this are definitely fictional and there aren’t yet any chimpanzee-human crossbreeds (that we know of), much of it is real and happening right now. There are discussions about the right of gene ownership, on whether we should be playing with genetics to help humanity and other species or if it’s pretending to be God, and the idea of breeding animals so that they have corporate logos on their skin. (“This rhino, brought to you by Land Rover.”)

A book that really makes you think and what’s going on in our bodies, and would be funny if it wasn’t so damn terrifying.

“The Seven Daughters Of Eve” by Bryan Sykes (2001)

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daughters

Double check that family tree

“Where do I come from?”

Although I’ll read pretty much anything, I generally find myself exploring the world in practically the modern day. A few decades back, a few decades forward, but I generally come back to the early 21st century time and time again. As such, it’s nice to go somewhere completely different occasionally. Forty five thousand years into the past seems far enough.

But this is not a novel. This is a disguised textbook which puts forward the theory (and all the assorted evidence) that 95% of Europeans can trace their ancestry back in a single maternal line to one of seven women who lived some time around the last Ice Age. Sykes gives them the names Ursula, Xenia, Helena, Velda, Tara, Katrine and Jasmine, and the odds are, if you’re reading this in Europe, one of them is your great-great-great-great…-great-great-grandmother.

Like all good non-fiction though, this doesn’t merely focus on throwing numbers and facts at you. Sure, a basic grasp of genetics is a nice foothold to get going (I at least knew that mitochondrial DNA existed, even if not being exactly sure of what it did), but Sykes writes well and is telling you the story of how he came to make his discovery.

The story spans the globe, from the hunt for the remains of the last royals of Russia, to the tiny Cook Islands in the South Pacific where the secrets of Polynesia’s conquest may be found. Sykes looks at the best preserved human bodies from ancient history, like the Ice Man and Cheddar Man. He really can drag you into his world as you become excited in the way our DNA is passed down from generation to generation, forming an unbroken line not just from the dawn of humanity, but from the dawn of time itself.

The important DNA passes down via the mother, which is why the book is about Eve (the ancestor of all living humans) and her daughters, so any women alive today are the result of an unbroken line of mothers having daughters. If a woman has no children, or only has sons, then her lineage dies out. These family trees could be a lot easier to track if we’d known this back in the day, as our family trees are done up to fit a patriarchial society, with surnames being passed down via the male line, even if the secrets of our past are not.

Towards the end, Sykes takes an interesting decision to imagine the lives of these seven women, the seven women who formed Europe. Each gets a short chapter about what their lives may have been like. Obviously, we have no evidence at all of what the individuals were like, but we can guess using what we know from archaeology. Ursula, for example, lived forty-five thousand years ago and probably travelled with a small band of humans, hunting large animals. At the other end, ten thousand years ago, the most recent clan mother, Jasmine, may well have been one of the first farmers. It’s all speculation, and I know that some reviewers at the time scoffed at this part of the book, dismissing it entirely. I, however, find it quite an interesting addition.

As Sykes says himself, oftentimes we think of the people in the past as completely detatched from us. We talk of the Cro-Magnons and even more modern, the Romans and the Tudors, as if they were a different species to us. However, for us to be here right now, one of our ancestors had to be present for the events of those times. And that’s pretty amazing.

This book reveals just how tiny the chance of your existence was. That you’re here at all is a miracle.