Monday, March 02, 2009

V: The Second Generation – Kenneth Johnson

Johnson, Kenneth - V The Second Generation

I just loved the first 1980s miniseries, V, and its followup sequel, V: The Final Battle. What was there not to love – invading aliens stealing our water, dramatic revelations of treachery, a growing Resistance and, best of all, scientists were the heroes instead of the instigators of our disaster. I ate it all up and wasted some long car trips imagining what might have happened next. (There was a single season as a TV show that tried to tell me that, but it all got kind of silly at that point, so I chose to ignore it. Only the two miniseries count as far as I’m concerned.)

All this means that when I learned there was a book coming out by Kenneth Johnson, who was the creator of the original miniseries, I was delighted. Here at last was a chance to find out his vision of how the story should have continued. He only worked on the original miniseries, so as far has he was concerned, that was the spring point for his ongoing story and The Final Battle didn’t occur – sigh, no Ham Tyler and no concurrent image of Michael Ironside in my head, as he only turned up in the later part of the story. For those that remember the original mini-series (or have had a quick read of the Wikipedia synopses linked to at the top of this review), the series ended with Julie and some others setting up a transmitter to send a request for help out into space, in the hope it will be reached by the great enemy of the Visitors.

Twenty or so years later, the Visitors are continuing to steal the Earth’s water and its people, all while running a totalitarian state and using fear and propaganda to convince the human population that everything is hunky dory.

The story opens with the appearance of two strange, naked women in a secluded hunting cabin. By the end of the chapter I make my first (and it turned out only) interested annotation:

These are the “enemy of my enemy” that the message was sent to at the end of the original miniseries?

We then switch to a young Teammate (the follow up the the Visitor Youth of the miniseries) fleeing from the Visitors, his dying mentor Sarah – the one who has just shown him the truth of things and convinced him to change sides – with him. Nathan escapes with help from a young half-breed girl and begins a careful progress into the Resistance.

Sadly, at this point my reactions stopped being interested and started to become frustrated. The writing in this book is… well, to be honest it pretty much sucks. It is not good prose at all. It’s stiff and it’s clunky and there is no flow to it at all.

Two Visitor fighters similar to the one Nathan was flying had dropped from one of the myriad landing bays on the bottom of the sixteen-mile-wide Mothership, which was equal in size to the hundreds of others like it around the world.

Firstly, since we’ve already been told Nathan is flying a fighter, do we need to have it noted that these other fighters are similar? Shouldn’t the use of the word fighter do that for us on its own. The whole of the first phrase is clunky even without that, but then we get a totally superfluous secondary phrase about the hundreds of motherships around the world. That doesn’t need to be there at all. Even if we didn’t now about the other ships already – and I’m pretty sure we did – there’s a better time to tell us that in the middle of a air battle.

Sadly, Johnson doesn’t seem to realise this as he then proceeds to give us another longish paragraph all about what the mothership looks like and how it is the flagship of the Armada and how it’s four thousand feet above the ground and it casts a huge shadow over the city. We’re in the middle of a battle here guys, remember? Who cares?

I’d be interested to know if all or any of this story was originally a screenplay. Johnson is a screenwriter before a novelist according to his author’s bio and it shows. The way this same action scene is written, it suddenly keeps snapping around into different locations to show the scene from a different angle and then snapping back to someone else a moment later. There’s nothing but a normal paragraph break between this parts and I began to feel like I was getting whiplash reading it all.

For example, we have section with Nathan in his stolen fighter that does this kind of jumping. Skipping typing in the paragraph that gives us a very detailed, dossier-style description of the Visitor pilot in the second craft, here’s how it reads:

Nathan knew he was facing a serious challenge.

The pilot in the lead interceptor was a female Patroller, a flight leader named Gina. […] She keyed her transmitter, and spoke with calm command. “Six one niner, you will form up with us and follow to the Flagship.”

In the rogue craft, Sarah was tapping the arm of her seat with growing anxiety.

That kind of swift flash of the enemy’s face would work very nicely on screen, but it really, really screws up the flow of the prose in a novel. This is far from the only example in the book of this screenplay-type technique failing to work in a novel. I think Johnson did improve a little by the end, but I was skipping to pick up the basic plot by then and I can’t be sure.

There there was the assumption that I, the reader, must be a total moron and have everything pointed out to me in case I miss a moment of deep significance. We’ve had another dossier-style description of life in San Francisco, but to be sure we got it, Johnson goes on:

Most people knew there were living in a subtle, tightly disciplined, and ever-present police state. Fort those who were old enough to remember World War II, it reminded them of Paris in the early 1940s after the fall of France.

Then follows a couple of long paragraphs detailing life in Paris after the Nazi occupation. So let me see, in case the initial description of life in San Francisco wasn’t enough for me, then I have to be told it’s a totalitarian state. Then I have to have a unsubtle reminder of Paris during World War II. At that point, I added a snarky annotation that says “I feel like I’m being hit over the head with a brick!” However, clearly even that wasn’t enough and I now get a whole crate of bricks dumped on me with the detailed description of live in occupied Paris. Really, I’m not that stupid, and I doubt most of the other reader who bought the book are either.

Sadly, this is another writing issue that repeats in the book. But try to relax as there’s only one more I’m going to gripe about. This time it’s overwriting again, telling me in varying amounts of detail – but always too much – something that I already know because I read it 50 or 80 pages back but needs to be repeated in case I’ve forgotten already.

She glanced across the roof and saw Bryke approaching Ayden, the amber-eyed man with whom she had communicated via the holographic transmission in the mountain cabin.

Now, I have CFS and it seriously affects my memory. I readily admit that I can read a mystery novel and go back to it after as little as about six months and have no clue about who did it because I simply can’t get things like that to stick in my memory well. (It makes for good opportunities to read things like mysteries without knowing all the answers though, so it has an up side.) However, even I’m not as bad as Kenneth Johnson seems to think I am. We also had long over-detailed descriptions of things that had happened in the miniseries as characters remembered them. Now, I’m not complaining about that quite so much, as not everyone will have seen it and 1981 is a lot further back to remember that 100 pages. All the same, they could have been much better and more smoothly written. My snarky annotation was snarkier for the above quote, a simple “Do you think I’m completely stupid?”

Sad to say, this simply is not a well-written book. But the time I got to about a third of the way through, I was skimming, and the skimming speed got faster and the reading more careless as I continued.

So why did you even finish reading it? I hear you asking me. Well, the answer to that is simple. Go back to my first paragraph of this review. I loved the miniseries. I loved the characters with a great big gushy, I’m-a-scientist-too kind of love. And I really wanted to find out what their original creator wanted to do with them. So I skimmed through to pick up as much of the plot as I could without having to actual read the prose.

It was okay. Some parts of it were good, some parts of it were okay and some I didn’t like. I didn’t like what he did to Mike Donovan (ooh, Marc Singer, almost as good V eye-candy as Michael Ironside), and I was very disappointed that in a book that he filled with a significant number of human/Visitor hybrid children (including a lovely one called Ruby adopted by Julie Parrish) there was not a single mention of Robin Maxwell and her pregnancy which would have resulted in the very first such hybrid child. She was still pregnant at the end of the miniseries, although her child (a daughter, Elizabeth) wasn’t born until The Final Battle. So Johnson wasn’t even constrained to what Robin’s child would be like. He could choose for himself, but he left them out completely, even though her father Robert is in the book and even makes a throwaway comment to Mike at one point about how Mike saved Robert’s daughters.

The final battle in the book was a clever idea, but came together far to quickly as a race against time before the Resistance’s new Zedti allies (those, the enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend friends who arrived in the first chapter – the only time I think we were supposed to guess something rather than have it explained to us in 100 words or more) blow up the Earth to stop the Visitors turning on their own home planet.

So yes, the idea was cool, but the execution wasn’t brilliant and there were just enough hints left to suggest another book could be written to follow up from this one – after all Diana escapes (surely you don’t think that’s a spoiler; she always escapes) and there’s now a new alien mothership hovering in the sky over San Francisco and a new alien leader offering to leave his fleet to oversee peacekeeping as the Earth gets itself sorted out again. If that book comes out, I think I’ll just stick the DVDs into the DVD player and watch V and V: The Final Battle again instead of spending any more money.

So sadly, all in all, V: The Second Generation was a big disappointment.

V: The Second Generation
Kenneth Johnson

Qualifies for: 100+ Reading Challenge, eBook Reading Challenge


Ms Ulat Buku said...

Hi Kerr! When I saw the title of the book and read your first paragraph, I remember saying to myself...No Way, as in THE 'V'...I blinking LOVE that SHOW! Sad to hear that the book didn't turn out to well... was the series based on a first book by any chance?

Kerry said...

I don't think there was ever a first book. I think the miniseries was written directly as a screenplay for the screen. Going on the writing in the book, I'd say Johnson writes screenplays very well; his skill just doesn't translate to novels.

Jase said...

My experience reading V:TSG was almost exactly as yours, and I was constantly getting hung up on the screenplay-style writing and lack of continuity with his own original mini series (no mention of Robin, mother ships got bigger without explanation, etc.). I wanted to like the story, but there were a lot of hurdles in the way.

I think it could have at least been a great read if KJ would have penned his story (again, presumably as a screenplay) and then had someone like A.C. Crispin turn it into a novel — she did a great job on the mini series novelizations.

Kerry said...

Jase - I like your idea of someone like A.C. Crispin having novelised it from a screenplay. I agree she did a good job with the original novelisation. What a pity it wasn't done that way.