The Republispouse was looking to get me some gag gifts for my birthday this year, and stumbled across a couple of novels "By" Bruce Boxleitner in the local Save-A-Buttload. With it's lurid cowboy front cover that would make Louis L'amour wince, and it's Babylon 5 Promotional Photo rear cover showing Boxleitner in an Earthforce uniform, flashing his "Hi, I'm Handsome!" smile, it is just one painfully embarrassing tome to be seen holding in public. My wife instantly knew she had a hit, and picked it up. As an added bonus, hidden behind it on the dollar rack was Boxleitner's sequel, with almost-as-lurid cover, and the same goofy-assed portrait of the "Author" on the back. She got the both of them for a whopping two dollars total, and gave 'em to me. (If you're interested, my other birthday gifts from her were a tiny Chairface Chippendale figure from The Tick, and an autographed photo of Milla Jovovich, who I have a well-documented and legally binding crush on.)
A week or two later, bored and stricken with insomnia, I started reading the first book. I'd actually heard of these a year or so before, and knew they were a blending of the Western and Science Fiction genres. There's nothing new in that – "Firefly" did largely the same thing during it's brief run, and every incarnation of Trek seems required by law to have a Wild West episode for no particular reason – it is at least comparatively thinly mined territory. Having yawned as many times as one can constructively yawn in a day without actually getting tired, I knuckled in and started reading. I was fully prepared for it to be awful.
What I was not prepared for was a Comedy of Manners.
I don't mean 'comedy' in the fall down hilarious sense that we see in the (animated) Tick series, or unintentionally in some of Milla's performances, and which we utterly fail to see in the pathetic and wrong live-action Tick series. Rather I mean it in the boring old English major sense wherein many of Shakespear's works are regarded as comic genius despite the fact that not a single thing funny happens in them. In other words, it's a Comedy because Stuff Goes Wrong, though none of it is terribly humorous. And in this particular Comedy, stuff goes wrong mostly because no one fully understands the customs – manners – of the others. This was unexpectedly subtle and effective, and though the book never *quite* hangs together as a cohesive hole, it was at least an interesting direction to take things in, and prevents it from being an abject failure as well. In fact, the book never gets even remotely close to being a total failure.
Without giving away too much of the plot, a Human raised by Aliens as a sort of spy crashlands in the Arizona desert October 22, 1881. Of course he's got amnesia as a result of the crash, so he has no memory of who he is, why he's there, how he got there, or life beyond Earth. He's got a pocket full of money, a hunk of alien hardware living in his chest, and an encyclopedic knowledge of English and Weapons, but damn little else. (If this sounds a lot like "Cowboys vs. Aliens," I strongly suspect the comic that's based on ripped this book off) Eventually he winds up in Tombstone, Arizona, and becomes embroiled in the events leading up to the Shootout At The OK Corral. In addition, there are some nasty not-at-all-human aliens called the Kar'agh chasing him, a widowed Tombstone woman who feels the first flutter of love since her husband died when she sees him, and a hot chick with a piece of machinery living in her chest and not a lot of clothes to hide it to further complicate matters.
Most of what works in this book – and the overwhelming bulk of it does – is comparison and contrast between the cultures at war here: The Stranger Without A Memory, who basically represents the modern reader in a somewhat bewildered state versus the undeniably primitive milieu that is Tombstone; the contrast between basic human values of love and friendship versus the S&M Nightmare on (multiple) legs that is the Kr'agh; between the Indians and the White Man; between the Pioneers and later, more civilized settlers; between girls who...uhm...do things and ones who don't; between Southerners (the Clantons) and Yankees (The Erps); between science and superstition; and so forth. I don't want to give the impression that this is an incredibly deep book – it isn't – but it touches on all these themes, and when it does it's interesting and entertaining. When it strays from these, however, it also strays from it's strengths, and you sort of long for it to get back to the more metaphorical stuff.
The significant flaw the book has is that there are two parallel plots: The Shootout At The OK Corral, and our protagonist attempting to figure out who and what he is while the Kr'agh hunt him down. Though these plots weave in and out of each other somewhat, they never quite come together in a way that does either much satisfaction. The plot moves inexorably towards the Shootout, and then it happens, and by that point, it's got little to do with our protagonist and nothing at all really to do with the larger issues surrounding him. Despite a bit of forced cross-pollination between the two stories, they're largely independent of each other. Another fundamental problem is that while this story is more or less self contained, it leaves the door a little too obviously wide open for the inevitable sequel, which, you'll recall, my wife also purchased for a buck. I would have preferred a little more denouement and a little less cliffhanger.
The middle third drags a bit. There's a laborious setup where our protagonist is hired by the Erps to act as a spy for them, but little or nothing of note comes of this, it just fills space. Likewise, there are several scenes where the Chick With Not Many Clothes attempts to contact the protagonist, but is repeatedly rebuffed by the aforementioned Widow who's got the hots for said protagonist. These exchanges are exercises in frustration, as they serve no purpose other than to keep the frequently naked Chick With Not Many Clothes away from the protagonist, thus delaying a number of answers about who he is, and thereby padding out the novel to a more or less standard 320 pages or so. That said, the actual shootout itself is beautifully choreographed in such a way that everything happens just as it *really* did, and our protagonist runs through the whole thing in a plausible fashion without affecting the action. Impressive.
On the other hand, the normally annoying amnesiac plot device is handled exceptionally well for a change. Essentially, from the moment the book picks up, we know more about the protagonist than he himself does, and it's kind of fun for us to watch him figure it out. Also, the Kr'agh are pretty good as pulp fiction bad guys go. They're a H.R.Gigeresque sort of nightmare, all black and nasty and beweaponed with cutters and claws and feeder-hands and throat-wrists and slasher-feet and smelling of corpses and decked out in all sorts of vaguely insectoid sounding bits of biological nastiness. They are suitably vicious and vile and predatory, and although they aren't up to the level of the Shadows from B5, they are in the same league with the Aliens from Alien, and far better than the Predators in Predator. The insights into their thoughts are adequately well thought out, though not as clear as, say, Larry Niven's K'zin. They're creepy and bad, though, and that's all that's really required of them.
This book is entirely ghostwritten by William H. Keith, who's done a lot of this sort of thing, and is actually pretty good. I've read three of his books now, and enjoyed 'em all. Check out his site here http://www.whkeith.com/home-page.html and you'll probably find you've read a few of his books without realizing it. I spoke with him a while back about the Ghostwriting trade, and he was outstandingly nice. He was very open and interesting about that sort of thing, but I don't feel like I should really repeat anything he said without his express permission. I'll see if I can set up an interview.
In conclusion, the book is a surprisingly good pulp SF tale told in an interesting way, and well worth a buck. Best book ever written? Not by a longshot. Best PR-flack dictated celebrity tie-in novel? Absolutely. It's got Ron Goulart beat by a longshot. And I *like* Ron Goulart. While it's not a classic, it's not at all insulting to the reader's intelligence, nor does it waste your time. That's actually more than you can ask for, and you get it here.
WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?
I think so. It is in a lot of ways your typical paladin-of-the-west story, in which the strong have a simple nobility and prevail against unspeakable evil. How can you not like that?