Archive for the ‘Secondhand Selections’ Category

Secondhand Selections: Sphere by Michael Crichton

October 2, 2009

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Greetings, faithful readers, and welcome to another new feature here at The Steve Austin Book Club – Secondhand Selections!

What is Secondhand Selections? Recently, EG was in a thrift store (We’ve established he is cheap, right?), and came upon a shelf of books. As he started looking through the books, he noticed that there were several science fiction and fantasy books among the myriad of diet books, self-improvement books, and thirty-year-old textbooks.

Considering that the average paperback now rings in at $7.99 and up, the chance to pick up a couple of books for a dollar or less appealed to him!

And, thus was the seed of this feature planted!

The rules are simple – the books reviewed in this feature have to be purchased either at a resale shop (thrift store, Goodwill, whatever). It is a chance to prove that there is cheap, literary treasure out there to be had! Or, on the other hand, there is a chance that reading some of these books might also explain how they ended up abandoned to a resale shop.

Now, let’s get to it, with the very book that EG picked up on that day when the concept of this feature was born: Michael Chrichton’s Sphere!

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This review was written with as few spoilers as I could manage and still give you, the reader, an idea of what the book was about. I’m pretty sure that you’ll be reasonably safe reading this review, but if you don’t want to know anything about the book, STOP NOW!!!

Overview:

In the middle of the South Pacific, a spacecraft is located near the bottom of the ocean floor, and, based on the surrounding environment, it has been there for at least 300 years. The ramifications of the find spur the U.S. Navy to proceed with a top secret plan written during the Carter Administration, titled “Recommendations for the Human Contact Team to Interact with Unknown Life Forms (ULF).” The author of that plan, psychologist Norman Johnson, is called in, along with mathematician Harry Adams, biochemist Beth Halpern, and astrophysicist Ted Fielding, as the civilian team to assist Captain Harold Barnes as they investigate the finding.

The team sets up shop one in an artificial underwater habitat, and soon begins exploring the mysterious ship that yields yields more questions than answers – such as, why are all the signs on the ship in English?

In the exploration of the ship, the team locates a large, perfectly polished silver sphere about 30 feet in diameter, and completely alien.

Approaching storms require the team to return to the surface, but, before they leave one of the team members does the unexpected… and enters the alien sphere.

Unable to evacuate, the team is stuck as the storms come and they are cut off from the surface world until the weather clears. Eventually, the team member that entered the sphere comes out of it.

And, that is when things start to get really interesting, as an unknown entity begins to contact them.

Review:

I have to admit something – I saw the movie Sphere in the theater in 1998. And, I have not thought of it since then, other than to think, “Well, that was a waste of money.”

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In that case, why did I pick up this book? We all know that, generally speaking, books tend to be far superior to the films made of them. I’m not knocking film, it is just really difficult to transform a tapestry woven over 300 pages or so into a 90-minute film. As a result, a lot is lost… or changed.

Sometimes, the film can be pretty good as well, and then you seek out the book, which is what I did with a little art film titled Jurassic Park.

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I liked the movie, and a lot of people told me I should read the book, because it was even better.

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So I did. I read the book, and it was great. It was also different from the movie.

When I came across Sphere at the thrift shop, my immediate thought was, “blech!” Then, I realized two things: My feelings were based entirely on the film, and Sphere was written by Michael Crichton, who also happened to write Jurassic Park. Based on that, I decided to give the book a chance.

The book is, overall, a page turner. Crichton knew how to connect with the reader, as proven in his other books, and it is no different here. It also picks up speed as it goes along, until the reader is nearly racing toward the end. (That’s something I really like to feel in books.)

Despite some pretty “out there” concepts of science (and, by “out there” I mean both complicated and suspect), the book was accessible throughout, due in a great part to choosing as the main character Norman Johnson, a non-scientist that asks the questions that the reader has almost as quickly as the reader comes up with them.

Sadly, the other characters in the book tend to be one of two options – two-dimensional or non-existant. The other members of the team recieve the two-dimensional fill out in characterization, while other characters seem to simply be until they are no more. I can’t say for sure if this was by design, so that the reader latches onto Norman even more, but it does tend to make some of the dramatic moments of the book less impactful, because we don’t have an attachment to other characters.

The action sequences are well-built throughout the book, and do have that sense of urgency needed to drive the reader forward. Thankfully, it is written so that the reader doesn’t get too hung up along the way with techno-babble. I’ve read some books that get focus on that so much that you feel like you are reading a technical manual!

There are, though, some massive lapses in common sense that pop up throughout the book. As an example, when the characters worry about running out of air in the habitat waiting for the storms to abate, I immediately found myself asking why they wouldn’t go over to the spacecraft, which had already been shown to be able to support them.

Another problem is that there are some unexplained jumps in logic that are made. Toward the end of the book, there is a character that, despite having been unconscious for more than 12 hours, seems to be completely up to speed on what is going on upon waking, leaving the reader going, “huh?”

I think the biggest disappointment with the book is the ending, which is a little too simple, almost trite, in how it ties up all the loose ends. In that regard, the reader is left unsatisfied.

I don’t mean to be hard on the book. It isn’t bad, it really isn’t, and it is very exciting at times. And, trust me, it is sooooo much better than the movie. It just wasn’t as good as I wish it had been.

For that reason, I’m giving the book a solid two and a half Running Steves.

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And, maybe, since I haven’t seen the movie in eleven years, maybe I’ll watch that again and let you know how I feel about it in more detail sometime!

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