Thursday, 9 December 2010

‘Predator: South China Sea’ – Jeff Vandermeer (Dark Horse Books)

I wouldn’t say that I’ve read a great deal of Jeff Vandermeer’s work (and some of what I have read I need to go back and re-read; it’s been a while...) but the impression I’ve been left with is that this is a guy who likes to follow his own path and tell stories of what he finds on that journey. No tapping into what’s popular here, Vandermeer stands out by seeming to deliberately go against the flow.
That made it all the more surprising then when I found out that he had written a ‘Predator’ tie-in novel a couple of years ago (yep, it can sometimes take me far too long to catch up on things). I was of course immediately curious to find out what Vandermeer made of the leap from the gloriously weird settings of ‘Finch’ and ‘City of Saints and Madmen’ to a setting that’s undeniably more commercial and mainstream. As things turned out, it was a leap made with some aplomb but also with the help of an anchor placed firmly in the weird stuff...

For those who have the money to play with, a remote jungle island in the South China Sea offers the perfect place to let off a little steam with the best in big game hunting. If there’s an animal that you ever fancied hunting, the odds are that it’s here and ready to be shot at. Now something else has arrived on the island and the hunters are about to find that the game has suddenly become a lot more deadly...
The deadliest hunter in the galaxy is on the island and on safari. In its sights is a collection of gangsters, pirates, secret agents... and a burnt out rock star. Can they put aside their own double dealing schemes to deal with a greater threat? Will the Predator only serve to advance these schemes? It’s all going down on the island and not everyone will make it out alive; not everyone will even want to...

Yet again, Jeff Vandermeer has written a novel that I couldn’t put down until I’d finished; reading his stuff is always a pleasure. This time round though it’s for entirely different reasons than normal. Vandermeer set out to write a sci-fi thriller and succeeded on all counts.

You could say though that Vandermeer was already onto a winner, before he even started, considering the material he had to work with. The ‘Predator’ franchise is successfully based on a very simple concept and it’s a concept that (on initial inspection) Vandermeer aligns very closely with what he has happening in ‘South China Sea’. It’s a tried and tested formula and one that Vandermeer doesn’t stray far from. There’s a Predator on the hunt for prey and he’s doing it in the jungle, that’s the bottom line. If you’re looking for something a little fresher in terms of plot then this may put you off initially but stick with it. The ingredients might all be the same as usual but it’s what Vandermeer does with them that eventually raises ‘South China Sea’ from being standard ‘run of the mill’ fare and turns it into something special.

First and foremost, Vandermeer works very well with what he has been given (namely, the aforementioned hunt and jungle setting). You might well see what’s coming but that’s ok, you’re meant to. Our characters don’t share that same privilege though and this is where Vandermeer injects a sense of tension that grows on the reader as the tale progresses. You can literally feel the tension growing in these people as they make their way through a relatively unfamiliar landscape whilst being stalked by an alien foe. Once you tap into that sense of tension, you have to see it through to the conclusion and this forces the plot forward at just the right pace.
It’s also worth noting that Vandermeer doesn’t just limit this tension to the human characters. The Predator is very much portrayed as being on an alien world and subject to the kind of surprises that such a newcomer would experience. Just when you think the Predator is about to walk off with it all... well, that would be telling (and some surprises shouldn’t be spoiled). It goes without saying that the resulting pyrotechnics, in various confrontations are worth sticking around for.

All of these moments are cleverly bundled up into a multi faceted and tightly controlled plot where everyone’s motivations are suspect and some only come to fruition right at the very end. There is always something going on and the human intriguing contrasts very nicely with the more straight forward ‘violence in motion’ of the Predator. This is a story that gives its readers plenty to look at as well as plenty to think about, all in equal measure.

Where ‘South China Sea’ also stands out from the pack is in the way that Vandermeer expands upon the mythos of the Predator species and, as a result, gives his readers something that’s a little broader in scope than you would expect. On the basis of the films, you might be forgiven for thinking that most Predator activity is confined to Earth. Vandermeer pulls back the curtain on a whole galaxy that is nothing more than a hunting ground for this species. I found myself rooting for the humans even more because of this. When such an activity is shown to be commonplace you can’t help but support the little guy, in the thick of it through no fault of his own.

Vandermeer really lets loose with his imagination in these scenes, none more so when one of the human party undergoes an enforced transformation themselves. While it’s beautifully written, and makes for one particularly superb fight scene, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was one moment where Vandermeer lost that tight hold he had on the plot. While there were connections to the plot, this sub-plot felt more like an exercise in whimsy and perhaps a means for Vandermeer to reconnect with the weirdness that he enjoys delving into. As a result, we’re left with a tight plot that could perhaps be tightened more.

Despite these small failings though, you can’t really complain when the sum of ‘South China Sea’s’ parts is a such a thoroughly entertaining read. You may think you’ve seen all this before but you haven’t seen it in the hands of Jeff Vandermeer.

Nine and a Quarter out of Ten


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the kind review!

Re the fungal thing...I just thought that was a great joke. It's not whimsical, it's really just extrapolating on the idea of the Predator being so messy and unhygenic that it brings all kinds of viruses and biological matter along with it to other planets. Kind of a theory of extraterrestrial life brought to Earth because of a really sloppy, well, predator! Thanks!


Graeme Flory said...

That would totally explain the lack of hygiene gel dispensers on the Predator's ship... ;o)

Thanks for pointing that one out for me, casts that sub-plot in a whole different light now. Cheers!


Walter Rhein said...

Awesome review! It seems as if the Predator series has a habit of attracting superior talents. I'm still surprised that Adrian Brody appeared in the last film. Sounds like a great read!