Sunday, July 05, 2009

Fiction Review - Meg: Hell's Aquarium

Meg: Hell's Aquarium, by Steve Alten. 2009.
This is long for a review by me, but Alten is the most successful writer of cryptozoological-themed fiction, and I like analyzing his novels and thinking about what works and what doesn't.
I have to start by saying that, as a science writer, I find Alten's submerged (as in under the known seafloor) ancient sea habitat is not easy to believe in. I do give the author credit for offering a foreword that goes into the geology and palentology of his scenario. I have other problems with the science, and I was harsh about this in reviewing of the first two Meg novels. I won't rehash the details, though: It's the author's setting, it's now a given, and what the reader wants is to see is how well he uses it.
As prose, this book seemed a step back from Alten's The Loch, which I thought a very good novel. Hell's Aquarium uses a breathless style with lots of dashes and exclamation points in the narrative. You get used to it, but Alten's work in his Loch Ness novel showed he didn't need that sort of gimmick, and I'm not sure why he uses it here. There are a few editing mistakes: a sunken WWII cruiser used quite cleverly in the plot is referred to once as a "destroyer," and a character who competes in triathlons quotes a finishing time appropriate to the marathon portion only.
Most of the characters in Hell's Aquarium are three-dimensional: Alten has improved on this from book to book. The basic plot involving humans works well enough, and the villians' motives are believable.
Alten's strength, as always, is fast-moving action, and there are some real page-turner moments. Alten has a knack for incorporating popular culture, and I loved the Internet contest that resulted in naming two captive Megalodons Mary-Kate and Ashley. A final thing I liked was the ending, not necessarily for its plausibility, but for springing genuine surprises about who lives, who is traumatized, and who dies.
Alten likes to pile on the creatures and maximize their sizes in his work. This is ok: it's fiction, and if Peter Benchley can use a 100-foot squid, Alten can use a 122-foot Liopleurodon. (I liked his 25-foot evolved form of the vampire squid Vampyroteuthis infernalis - that would be scary as hell in real life.) It's not clear how creatures from eras over 200 million years apart could have ended up in this habitat, although I'll buy anything that brings my favorite predator Dunkleosteus on stage. Alten takes pains to emphasize there's a complete food web in the "aquarium," although, like Peter Jackson's take on Skull Island, it still seems too slanted toward megapredators. All the big Mesozoic reptiles are here (evolved gills and all), along with a squadron of sharks and even a monster turtle. This makes for an exciting series of beast-on-beast conflicts as the humans mainly try to avoid becoming snacks. Alten has some good moments of description concerning the creatures and their dark, cold, deep habitat. I'll wager Alten read Richard Ellis' nonfiction Aquagenesis as part of his research: a very similar list of large predators shows up in both books.
As a cryptozoological researcher, I kept thinking of Bernard Heuvelmans' dissection of sea-serpent reports into as many as nine species. (I allow for one and possibly two.) Alten's beasts could cover all those categories and then some. It would have been fun to see Alten throw in a prominent cryptozoologist to react to the fact that, while cryptozoology has been chasing a new shark here and a giant eel there, there's been a horde of spectacular creatures unguessed-at. Maybe in the next book.
The level of cooperation and intelligence shown by some of Alten's sharks goes beyond what we know of real sharks, although the Megs, at least, have had 60 million years to evolve this way, so mark that as a permissible liberty taken by a writer of fiction. At the end, two escaped Megs are setting themselves up as new apex predators of their own patch of the coastal Pacific, violently displacing the orcas which have been used to ruling unchallenged. I'll be curious to see whether Alten follows that up in another sequel. There's some interesting science he could go into, if he so chooses, about what would happen in an event like that.
I thought the third Meg novel was a little better written than this fourth one. I thought The Loch was better still, and it puzzles me that Alten has slipped back from the quality (in this reader's opinion, of course) of his best novel.
Overall, Hell's Aquarium is what it's supposed to be, which is fun. It's like going to a Transformers film. You may wonder about some of the the science and the implausible escapes, but you came to see the robots in action. You pick up an Alten novel to see the creatures in action. Hell's Aquarium gives you what you pay for.


Matt Bille said...

Mr. Alten was kind enough to write an email in response.
He feels the abyssal food web is suffient to use as a departure point for fiction, and he's right in saying that fiction is just that. I'm just the kind of reader for whom a background well-grounded in known science makes a book more compelling. He says he has not read Ellis, which, on reflection, is believable: it may just be that anyone researching big prehistoric predators will come up with a similar list. He also notes a mistake of mine, saying Megs were around 34MYA, not 60. Scientific sources I can find put it at 18 to 20 MYA. I actually used 60 because that's the figure in Alten's fictional universe, where he's put a Meg and a T. rex in the same scene.
On style, he noted that Hell's Aquarium is quite a different novel than The Loch, all-action as opposed to being more character-driven. This is an author's prerogative, of course. The third Meg, though, was also an action novel, and I thought the writing a little better than in "Meg 4." It's just a statement of my preferences as a reader.
Again, thanks to Alten for taking the time.

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