Reviews – POD by Stephen Wallenfels and The Games by Ted Kosmatka

When I was a kid, I used to check out copies of the Writer’s Market from the library and give them to my parents, who would take the books to work and Xerox the horror listings for me. I’d tape these photocopies into my writing notebooks and dutifully highlight, double-underline, and draw stars next to all the small press magazines that intrigued me. These publications, I dreamed, would one day mark the genesis of my career as a frustrated mid-list genre writer.

Those magazines are all gone now, along with my fantasies of making a living off of horror novels and X-Files tie-ins. But the submission guidelines still stick with me. Given limited space to pitch their magazines, editors were vague about what they were looking for, but explicit about what they were not. One piece of advice remains particularly clear:

“Do not send us stories inspired by recent blockbuster movies. WE WILL KNOW.”

To be fair to Stephen Wallenfels, when POD was first published in 2009, he couldn’t have foreseen it would later receive a mass-market paperback push in 2012, just a year and a half after the release of the movie Skyline. Both stories involve large alien vessels appearing over American cities and zapping anyone who happens to come into their line of sight. This leads the protagonists in both cases to hole up in claustrophobic locations where they spend most of the story bickering and observing the end of the world from afar, rarely getting directly involved.

In the event of a real alien invasion, this would probably be a sound strategy. But in the hands of journeymen storytellers it leaves a lot to be desired. If you’ve seen Skyline, then you know A) it’s not very good[1], and B) the only fun parts are when the characters leave the safety of their penthouse and are chased by giant aliens. By limiting the location to an apartment complex and giving the characters good reason to shut the blinds, the filmmakers operate within the scope of found-footage horror movies and artificially limit audience expectations of how much mayhem they can expect to see. It’s frustrating as a viewer, because the longer the characters stay inside, the less cool stuff we get to see, but it’s understandable given the realities of making an effects-driven monster movie on a budget.

Wallenfels, operating with what’s essentially an unlimited budget of 300 blank pages, does even less with an identical, and it should be noted, already conventional premise. In the beginning of the novel, 15-year-old Josh watches first-hand as the titular pods (which he saddles with the unnecessary acronym “Pearls Of Death”) vaporize all human life on the street in a manner reminiscent of the tripod attacks in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remake. Meanwhile, 12-year-old Megs finds herself hemmed inside a hotel parking garage while walls of luminescent fog form just outside the open-air structure. With the exception of a few excursions into an enemy camp in the building adjacent to her, Megs and Josh spend the entire book in these artificially isolated locations, trapped with their thoughts and their virtually identical first-person narration. Given how little happens, their restricted environments feel less like an alien-imposed prison and more like the author giving himself permission to expend as little imagination as possible.

Less directly ripped from movies and popular novels of the last two decades, Ted Kosmatka’s recent science-fiction thriller The Games at least tries to do something different with its near future scenario. After a series of scandals involving genetic enhancements made to Olympic athletes, the world agrees to form a separate gladiatorial competition for artificially created animal hybrids– the only restriction being that no human DNA is allowed in creation of the combatants. On a winning streak since the Games’ inception, the US hedges its bets by enlisting a sophisticated artificial intelligence program to assist in designing their next champion. When the resulting organism is born with never-before-seen code in its DNA, lead scientist Silas enlists an exotic xenobiologist from South America to help him figure out what it’s capable of it’s too la–

Never mind. It’s already too late.

Of the two books, The Games is better-written, with a clinical style that matches the nature of the scientific processes that are detailed in the first half of the story[2]. Unlike POD, which shamelessly cribs from The Road, contains cringe-inducing references to Die Hard, and rips off from more dubious sources like the film adaptation of The Mist, The Games’ biggest logical flaw is actually that it takes place in a world where no one’s read Jurassic Park. But after covering a substantial period of time in a sophisticated series of forward leaps, the story stalls when things go predictably awry and a drawn-out monster hunt ensues. The Games may not directly mimic any single book or movie from the last twenty years (though it reminds me strongly of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s The Relic), but in the end it’s still an overly familiar combination of things you’ve almost certainly seen before.

Which brings me back to that desperate plea in those old submission guidelines. Upon finishing The Games, and following it up a month later with POD, my initial reaction to both was “Why are these books?” There’s absolutely nothing in either of these novels that couldn’t be done in a direct-to-video SyFy original film. It doesn’t bother me that these stories revisit premises I’ve already seen explored dozens of times before. If I wasn’t fascinated by the idea of genetically-engineered animal hybrids or how people would react when confronted by inscrutable alien observers, I wouldn’t have picked these books up in the first place. What concerns me is that when given unlimited freedom to iterate in such popular territory, both authors failed to conceive of anything that could only be created with words on a blank page.

[1] Unless your tastes are similar to mine, in which case it’s not very good in the best possible way.

[2] Again, giving POD a little benefit of the doubt, though the current paperback edition does not label it a YA novel, it’s clearly written with a YA audience in mind. I don’t think that excuses the brief chapters and lack of characterization, but it’s worth noting that a direct prose to prose comparison might be a little bit unfair. (For that matter, there is a sentence in The Games where the crowd, overwhelmed when the US combatant steps into the arena, orgasms simultaneously.)


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