Wednesday, 16 November 2011

‘Cowboys & Aliens’ – Joan D. Vinge (Tor UK)

I’m ever so slightly worse at getting to the cinema than I am at reading those books that I always mean to get round to so... Did anyone see ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ at the cinema? What did you think? If there was a sequel called ‘Cowboys & More Aliens’ would you go back for seconds...?

For a guy like me, who would much rather be at the cinema than spending the last couple of days clearing up toddler vomit, movie novelizations are an absolute godsend. I may not see it on the big screen but I still get to find out what happened (and at a fraction of the price of a cinema ticket in London). The ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ novelisation had an added attraction, for me, in that it’s written by none other than Joan D. Vinge. Now, the name might not mean an awful lot to you (or it might, I don’t know) but Joan D. Vinge’s novelization of the film ‘Ladyhawke’ was a little bit of storytelling gold for me back when I was a lot younger than I am now. Seriously, I couldn’t get enough of that book when I was a kid (read it once a week at one point, way better than the film in my opinion) so the thought of reading another book by Joan D. Vinge was more than appealing. Not only that but we’re talking about a book where cowboys face off against aliens so I couldn’t lose. Could I...?

It’s New Mexico and its 1875; a stranger has woken up in the desert with no idea of who he is and only a mysterious shackle on his wrist offering any clue. Do the answers lie in the desert town of Absolution? Answers can be found there but they are not the answers that our mysterious stranger would choose, especially when the merciless Colonel Dolarhyde gets involved. That’s beside the point though, something else is waiting in the desert outside Absolution and none of the townspeople are safe. It comes from the sky in a mass of noise and blinding lights, picking off the hapless townspeople and delivering them to an unknown fate; Absolution is living on borrowed time... until our stranger starts to remember just who he is. Now the fight is on between a disparate group of outlaws, Apaches and townsfolk... and something not of this world.

Sometimes I wonder just how easy it really is to write a film novelization. On the one hand all the source material is there, right in front of you, waiting to be written down on paper. All of you have to do is write what you see, that can’t be too hard can it?
On the other hand though... all the source material is there, right in front of you, waiting to be written down on paper. All you can write is what you see, there’s no way you can branch off and do your own thing as it’s not really your property to mess around with in the first place (unless you get lucky and are allowed some leeway). That has to be quite restrictive when you think about it, not an easy set of conditions to write under at all. Joan D. Vinge managed to get round this in ‘Ladyhawke’ by really letting us get into the heads of the main characters and the result, for me anyway, was rather lovely. It didn’t work quite like that this time round though, more's the pity.

That’s not to say that ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ is a bad read as such. Joan D. Vinge does a good job of telling the story as it is and makes it a story worth following. The transfer from screen to page is very smooth in this respect with intriguing secrets drawing you into the plot (the big reveal is a little obvious when you finally see it but it’s hidden very well up until that point, one of the advantages of having a main character with amnesia...) and an appropriately harsh and isolated setting providing the ideal backdrop for the aliens to make their entrance. Everything ticks along very nicely, punctuated by the occasional alien attack that raises the tension superbly as the townspeople really have no idea what’s happening. Those alien attacks (throughout the novel as well as the finale) feel as explosive on the page as they must be in the film and I really found myself getting caught up in the excitement and panic on the streets of Absolution.

So what was the problem then?

As fun as the book was to read (and it was loads of fun) the underlying tone was very much along the lines of telling the story exactly as it happened on the screen. You’re probably asking what the big deal is here as surely that means the book was doing the job that it was meant to, right? Well, yes and no.
A ‘this happened, then this happened then the cowboys did this next’ approach probably worked really well on the big screen with all the accompanying pyrotechnics to push things forward in an exciting way. In the book though, the pyrotechnics still did their job but I couldn’t escape the feeling that the plot was a little too straightforward (almost monotonous in a rhythmical sense) to take that next step and really capture the reader’s attention.

I guess I was also a little spoiled by my earlier experience of Vinge’s writing. Quite simply, ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ is no ‘Ladyhawke’. The book does the job it sets out to do but absolutely no more than that. You can’t blame Vinge for that (she has clearly written the book she was commissioned to) but, at the same time, I couldn’t help but think there was a lot more story to be told though, if only Vinge had been allowed to.

‘Cowboys & Aliens’ is entertaining enough but feels a little hollow and half finished at the same time. If I had to choose between reading the book and watching the film... I’d probably go with the film.

Seven and a Half out of Ten


Jamie (Mithril Wisdom) said...

Thanks for the review :) I've got a copy of this on my shelf and was in two minds about reading it. I think I'll give it a miss :)

Pat said...

Was really looking forward to the movie but was sorely disappointed in how it was done. I wasn't blown away. First, I think this movie suffered from some truly bad casting. Harrison Ford brought the same character to this role that he's played in the last few movies - the curmudgeonly old bastard who barks at everyone. This might have been played so much better by a Robert Duval or someone like that. Harrison - not so much. Daniel Craig did okay, but maybe a Chris Pine might have done a better job there. Were they going for full on drama, or comedy, or campy-ness? Because they didn't hit the mark in any area.
I was getting it up until the whole episode with the Indians and the girl reappearing from the fire. Really? Really?
The aliens were pretty good, although they reminded me of the same aliens from Super 8 earlier this summer, with the addition of some hands that pop out of their chests.
I give it a 6/10. Ho hum. Not the summer blockbuster that I was hoping for.