Saturday, November 29, 2014

Book Review: The Tartarus Incident

Book Review: 'The Tartarus Incident' by William Greenleaf

3 / 5 Stars

He tugged on a shoulder, and the body flopped toward him....and he saw raw flesh, shards of white bone, empty eye sockets oozing gray stuff held to together by white, stringy filaments.

He fell back, vomited, and came up gasping for air. 

Then he heard the creature mewling its way down the corridor like some monstrous cat. He grabbed for his sizzler, and realized he no longer had it. Then he was running. Something up ahead - the end of the corridor. He pounded toward it, the sounds of the creature coming up close behind him.

This excerpt from 'The Tartarus Incident' (202 pp., Ace Books, May, 1983, cover artwork by James Gurney) certainly has some grisly excitement to it. Could 'Tartarus' be that rare thing: a sci-fi horror novel that really delivers the creeps and cold chills ?

Unfortunately, while 'Tartarus' comes close on occasion, overall, it misses the mark.

The plot is straightforward: the shuttlecraft Jack-A-Dandy, with a crew of four, is assigned to travel to the wintry planet Sierra, there to audit the colony outposts's finances. 

However, when the shuttle emerges from its hyperspace 'jump', its crew is bewildered to find themselves on a desert planet, where the air is breathable, but a roasting 125 degrees Farenheit, and the shuttle is pelted by sandstorms.

The Jack-A-Dandy is able to get off one garbled distress call before their comm link goes out, stranding the shuttle, with a broken navigational system, on an uncharted world .

The novel provides two alternating narratives. One deals with the efforts of the Space Command to discover where the shuttle went, and how to retrieve it. Author Greenleaf here focuses on the incompetency of bureaucrats, contrasting their ineptitude with increasingly dire straits of the shuttle crew.

As the bureaucracy sluggishly moves to investigate the fate of the Jack-A-Dandy, the other narrative deals with the travails of the shuttle and its crew. Captain McElroy struggles to improvise a functioning nav system. But things take a turn for the worse when a crew member becomes deranged and runs off into the hills....where an ancient, long-abandoned city lies under the searing sun.

The remaining crewmembers of the Jack-A-Dandy have no choice but to set out to find their missing colleague. But, as they soon discover, not everything in the ruined city is dead and buried....... 

As a novel written in the early 80s, 'Tartarus' borrows to some extent from the blockbuster film Alien, and this is not surprising, nor necessarily a bad thing. But the main problem with 'Tartarus' is that, while its narrative does deliver some rewarding 'alien monster' action, it is often interrupted and diluted by lengthy passages in which the author explores the interior psychology of his crewmembers. 

As well, it doesn't help matters that the crew exhibit the same carelessness and stupidity as the lubricious teens who serve as victims in slasher movies. In fact, by the book's midpoint, I was rooting for the monsters to make quick work of the idiotic crew.......

I won't divulge the book's ending, except to say that it did pick up sufficient suspense to impart some necessary momentum to the narrative.

The verdict ? As a sci-fi horror novel, 'Tartarus' is comeptent, but not extraordinary. It's worth picking up if you happen to see it on the shelf, but I can't say it should be the object of a dedicated search.

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