In Which I am Disappointed

About a decade ago I was in New York City doing some standup comedy for a television audition when I went into this riff where I did some rapid fire pitching of movie scripts I could write. The one that got the most applause and laughter is a story of a little boy who lives next door to a mad scientist. The mad scientist wants to do something nice for the boy so he clones a mammoth and gives the results to the kid. Then the scientist dies, sort of a la Edward Scissorshands, and the boy becomes the sole caretaker of the baby mammoth. His goal is to return the mammoth to the tundra so it can run free with its friends, despite the fact that his older brother tells him over and over that there aren't any mammoths running free in the tundra. The name of this fabulous script is, what else, Free Woolly.

Of course cloning a mammoth is such a great idea that many other people have had it, in fact I believe that actual attempts are still ongoing. I've been interested to see how other writers handle this idea so I pick up every book or article on the subject I can find. The other day I was at the library and saw a book by John Varley called Mammoth so I pounced on it with glee. Could this book live up to my very strong expectations? There was only one way to find out.

Mammoth isn't just a book with mammoth cloning going on; it also features a time machine, a crazed billionaire, a loopy mathematician, an extremely famous actress and some odd writing techniques. I think my favorite thing about the book is the clever use of chapter numbering. Since the story takes places at different times, some in our era and some in the Cenozoic, the chapters are numbered out of order. The first chapter in the book is chapter five and the last is chapter one. Sadly the rest of the book isn't as clever and it doesn't quite live up to its potential.

You may be aware that NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, just ended. That's the time of year when tens of thousands of people around the world hunker down around the keyboards and pound out fifty thousand words of novel in thirty days. The basic precept of the entire exercise is to write quickly and without inhibition, getting the words down on paper and having a semblance of a plot are the only important things. Good writing, realistic plot twists, believable characters; everything like that is pushed by the wayside with the intent of fixing it all in the second draft, if you even bother to have a second draft. One hallmark of NaNoWriMo novels is their bizarre plot ricochets. Anything can, and does, go. If you get stuck you can post on the discussion boards and get an idea for what happens next and there are always dares going on, like this one that I saw a couple of weeks ago, posted by DragonMistress that says, "Have a rip in the space time continuum occur in the space between two StarBucks located across the street from each other."

What does all this have to do with Mammoth? The further I got into this book the more convinced I became that the book is secretly a NaNoWriMo project. Not only does it feature a clichéd math geek and a female veterinarian who was raised in the circus, it's also sporting a billionaire madman who shoplifts called Christian Howard. But wait, there's more. He also owns a one hundred and fifty story tall tower called the Resurrection Tower smack dab in the middle of Los Angeles. At the top of the tower is an enormous eagle head. Howard likes to sit in the eagle head and pretend to be a superhero, looking out over the city. And guess what he owns? A death ray. That's right a death ray. Now come on, how many crazed billionaires do you know who own a time machine and a death ray and a woolly mammoth/Columbian mammoth cross? Yeah, me too, I know exactly zero also.

In the right hands all of these elements would be combined into a rollicking edge of your seat adventure but this author isn't quite able to manage it. Part of the problem is that he talks down to his audience, an odd choice for a science fiction writer since skiffy fans tend to be both intelligent and interested in learning about new things. Varley over explains some of the science and he sounds scornful and contemptuous when he tries to give us the point of view of some of the characters. Howard's cloning facility is attacked by animal rights advocates who try to destroy the lab, an important plot point designed to move the story forward, but when Varley tries to get into his characters' heads he fails. Instead of letting us know why and how they think the way they do in a sympathetic way, every thought is expressed in a mocking tone and they come off as caricatures instead of characters. It's really a shame.

I also watched a film this week that could have been good but didn't quite make it. Room 6 is a horror story about a woman who is plagued by nightmares about being awake during a surgery in a ghastly hospital. She and her boyfriend are in a car accident and then he's loaded into an ambulance and taken away, but taken where? She doesn’t know and she can't find him anywhere. She's greeted with ridicule and mystification wherever she looks. Meanwhile we see that he's in the hands of the very surgeons and nurses she's been dreaming about and we know that nothing good is in store for him.

Writer/Director Michael Hurst does an excellent job of creating the feeling of being trapped in a terrible dream. Hospital corridors circle back on themselves, everything feels a little off, impossible and horrible things happen all around while other people can't or won't see them and Nick, the injured boyfriend, has to hobble along on crutches and a cast. Unfortunately the dialogue is trite and predictable and the acting is stilted. Jerry O'Connell (Sliders, Stand by Me) looks weirdly like a deformed Stephen King, adding to the surreal quality of the film, but his performance is wooden and disappointing.

The story had enormous potential but never came anywhere near fulfilling it. This could have been extremely creepy and compelling with an interesting and difficult mystery but couldn’t quite make it. Maybe in twenty years someone will remake this movie and with excellent casting, new dialogue and judicious cutting of some of the more trite plot elements we'll have a quality horror film.

So what did I do this week that was fun and entertaining? I'm listening once again to Lenny Henry's fabulous reading of Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys and that makes me happy. I'm also immersed in a book called An Assembly Such as This - A Novel of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman, by Pamela Aidan. It's book one in a trilogy that is Pride and Prejudice from Darcy's point of view. I approached this book with some trepidation because I am a huge Jane Austen fan, but it's much better than I expected.

This week's one sentence review is courtesy of Cullen who went to see the new James Bond film, Casino Royale. He says, "It's probably better if you pretend it’s not a James Bond film." Have you got a one-sentence review? Send it in to me and I'll run the best ones. You can reach me at feedback@qualitytimeweekly.com.