Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Book Review - Michael Crichton's Easters of the Dead

Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton
Published by: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: March, 1976
Format: Paperback, 181 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Ibn Fadlan has left Bagdad, City of Peace, as an ambassador to the King of Saqaliba who is interested in adapting the Muslim faith. Traveling up the Volga he and his party encounter many strange and unfamiliar people. Ibn meets a group of vikings who are encamped along the river awaiting the death of their chieftain. Ibn befriends the heir apparent, Buliwyf, which is awkward when another heir tries to assume the mantle of chieftain. Before the matter can be resolved a messenger arrives begging Buliwyf's help. The great King Rothgar is being besieged by monsters that come out of the mist and is in need of a great hero. Buliwyf is that hero. For this epic journey and the battle to come they need thirteen warriors to make up their company, and it is propitious that the thirteenth is a stranger, so they take Ibn with them, much against his will. While Ibn didn't count on this journey, he recounts the vulgar but heroic viking race he is stuck with for posterity. If they live he will have a story to tell about a brave race brought to their knees by mist; but first they must survive.

Of all Crichton's books Eaters of the Dead holds the unique distinction of the book I care least for. It creates neither love nor loathing in me. Eaters of the Dead is just there. A short book about vikings that I couldn't care less about. Yes, the cover of my edition does amuse me, because it has that distinction of being so very late eighties. Is the viking on a Tron esque battlefield? Is the viking trapped in a video game matrix? The skulls on sticks could almost double as palm trees. Other then that, I have rarely given this book a second thought. In fact when the book was being adapted into a movie, unlike every other Crichton adaptation, I didn't even bother to see it. In fact, as I write this, I haven't seen it to this day. Would I say this book was a misstep for Crichton? Not really. I think he needed to do it as an experiment to get it out of his system. He needed to show that he could write something different, even if I didn't care for that different. And this is very different, being first person, being all in the past, and apparently being the settlement of some argument he was having with one of his friends.

The apparent history of why Crichton felt a need to write Eaters of the Dead was that one of his friends labelled Beowulf as being boring. Crichton disagreed. To win this argument Crichton wrote a boring retelling of Beowulf. So I think his friend won the argument. I'm not saying Beowulf is boring, I'm saying that Crichton's attempts to prove that it is a riveting story resulted in a snore worthy book. One of the problems is Crichton is unable to move past his modern mindset. He has always been at the forefront of technology and research, with his books often predicting trends; and while writing about something that happened in the tenth century A.D. he couldn't help but anachronistically slip a few things in, mainly man's similarity to apes, otherwise called "research for Congo is seeping into this story." But the worst was a bizarre post narrative meditation on what exactly the "mist monsters" were. The "Grendel" or "Wendol" here isn't some mythic monster but some Neanderthals that have survived with concurrent evolution. Say what!?! REALLY!?! Um no. Beowulf is a myth and epic story that isn't mean to be explained by evolution. Crichton needed to think about what it looked like to people of the time NOT people of our time. This takes us out of the moment and changes how you look at the book, and not favorably.

Crichton has basically been spending the whole book in second guessing and invalidating his story with his "faux" history, hello Neanderthals. It is fairly obvious that Crichton was a fan of William Goldman and in particular his book The Princess Bride. After all, Ian Malcolm was only "mostly dead" and therefore able to be resurrected for his star turn in The Lost World. They probably even knew each other, being authors who had crossed over into film. When The Princess Bride came out three years prior to Eaters of the Dead I'm sure the interrupted style of the narrative with faux history and the "abridgment " of the "original text" was something fresh and new. In Eaters of the Dead Crichton tries something similar and fails miserably. It's almost as if Crichton missed the whole point of what Goldman was doing. The interruptions were to poke fun at the story, to add something more, and usually that something more was levity. With "faux" history you can never take yourself too seriously otherwise you end up sounding like a textbook. Look to authors who successfully use the footnotes, ie, Terry Pratchett, Susanna Clarke, and Lisa Lutz. They all add some fun with the facts. Crichton misses the boat and it feels like he's taking himself too seriously and with the Neanderthals previously mentioned he seems to almost have a need to make a myth real instead of an enjoyable read.     

The biggest misstep that Crichton made in structuring this book, aside from the "faux" historical framing device, was deciding that it should be a first person narrative. I believe it is the only book he wrote this way, though I have a slight inkling that maybe Disclosure might be first person, but I have no desire to dig up the book to find out. Yeah, I'm lazy at the moment, deal with it. The problem isn't so much in having it first person, but in having it first person with Ibn as the narrator. Ibn would be a prime example of an unreliable narrator and a complete ass. He's the king of the backhanded compliment and derides the vikings for their customs, which he then takes part in as he feels like it, all while saying how disgusting they are. Look how horrid and smelly they are and will fuck anything, oh, I can fuck the slaves too, yeah! Plus, I don't get why Crichton grafted on this true story to the Beowulf myth. I don't think it was to try to push the veracity he was so desperate to claim. The only reason I can think of is to have an outsider to relate to for us non-vikings. But there's no chance anyone is going to relate to Ibn the ass, so his purpose is therefore pointless. Unless Crichton really wanted us to hate the narrator...

Plus Ibn as narrator restricts the story so much. We don't get the grandeur and depth that is possible with this story by being forced into the confines of this bigoted ass's mind. Think how awesome vikings can be? Seriously, to make them boring Crichton should be awarded a special prize. Just look at what's popular on television right now! The History channel has a huge hit with a show just called Vikings! Also how about the whole How to Train Your Dragon book and movie series? This is a culture that we are fascinated with. Their achievements for the time where amazing and Crichton made them boring. Seriously boring. I mean, how did he do this? Maybe the people reading this when it came out in the mid-seventies saw something I didn't, but I seriously doubt it. If there's one Crichton book I would say to skip without compunction it would be Eaters of the Dead. Seriously, skip it. Move along now.


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