As well as reading New Zealand speculative fiction collection A Foreign Country over the holidays, I also read two New Zealand speculative fiction novels: Returning by Pat Whitaker, and The Game by Lee Pletzers. Here’s what I thought:
I enjoyed Returning, and it kept me gripped throughout: I always wanted to know what would happen next. I thought the novel had an outstanding first third, went off the boil for a while in the middle, and returned to form with a strong and moving ending.
Returning is the story of Arthys, an alien exiled on Earth, and his attempts to return home. As such, it’s not dissimilar to some of the books of my favourite hard SF author, Hal Clement. The first section in particular is a gripping evocation of the alien protagonist’s coming to terms with his bizarre new environment and his limitations within it.
Returning is, broadly speaking, a science fiction novel, but it also has elements of romance, alternate history and war novel. Keeping all those aspects in play requires the chutzpah and epic scale of a Thomas Pynchon or a Neal Stephenson – it’s very hard to do in a novel of less than 250 pages, and the attempt to do so is what, for me, made the middle section of the novel less successful.
That’s where the war and alternate history aspects of Returning come to the fore, and although the material of these sections is interesting in itself, I felt that the amount of exposition required overwhelmed the narrative for a while.
The good news is that the novel comes back to its original virtues in its final section, to reach an ending that is both moving and appropriate.
This is the first of Pat’s books that I’ve read; Returning leaves me wanting to read more.
Lee Pletzers is a horror writer; I reviewed his earlier novel, The Last Church, in 2009. Like The Last Church, The Game is horror with some science fiction elements.
The Game is about a virtual reality computer game that sucks its players in more completely than its creator intended – and sucks him in, too. The entity controlling the titular game has a nasty imagination, and as in The Last Church, various characters suffer highly unpleasant fates.
One of the things that irked me about The Last Church has been fixed in The Game: the proofreading is much better. (That might sound like faint praise, but as a writer, badly-proofread books really annoy me!) And, while the basic idea isn’t new, the plot is well worked out.
But, based on both The Last Church and The Game, I think that Lee Pletzers could take a lesson from Stephen King. King’s best horror novels work because of the care he has taken in creating believable main characters. When bad things start happening to them, we care.
In contrast, The Game has a lot of characters, operating independently or in small groups – as you do in a game – to whom a lot of bad stuff happens. Lisa, the daughter of the titular game’s inventor, is as close as the novel comes to a central character, but I never felt deeply engaged in her struggles and her fate.
So my recommendation for Lee’s next novel would be to scale back the number of characters, breathe life into a few of them, and only then put those well-established characters under threat. That would be a horror novel to get my pulse pounding.