After Earth by Peter David
After Earth by Peter David (Del Rey, 2013) is a film novelisation adapting the script by M. Night Shyamalan and Gary Whitta, based on a story by Will Smith, a species of books I only bother with when I’m interested in the author. Since I’m something of a fan of the series featuring Sir Apropos of Nothing, I decided to read this — if I have the time, I’ll also watch the film to see how it compares. This is the story of Kitai Raige, son of Cypher Raige, the first man able to ghost. At this point, I’m going to diverge from book and film to talk about relevant parallels. When I was young, A E Van Vogt was considered very impressive. He’s another of the authors where I achieved completion. Anyway, my feeble memory recalls the story “Co-operate Or Else” which has Professor Jamieson stranded on an inhospitable planet and hunted by a predatory six-legged alien. It’s one of a species called the ezwall and was later fixed up as part of The War Against the Rull. I mention this because Van Vogt also wrote The Voyage of the Space Beagle which was allegedly the source of the plot for the seminal film, Alien. While I’m not suggesting the team behind After Earth has copied “Co-operate Or Else”, it’s an interesting coincidence.
Anyway, the alien species in this film, which humans call the Ursa, has been bioengineered to track and kill humans. This is all rather strange. In the film Pitch Black, which is terrific entertainment, we have an alien species go through entire reproductive cycle during what passes for night on this planet. The scent of blood attracts them to the humans and light repels them. They are adapted to virtual sightlessness (light frightens them for some reason), relying on a form of radar to move around and detect prey. So these Ursa have been adapted to detect the “smell of fear”. The humans speculate the creators of these predators are themselves sightless, engineering these predators in their own image. As an idea, this is actually quite ingenious, but it seems to me it has a serious defect. The alien species in Pitch Black has multiple mechanisms for navigating both on the ground and in the air. This makes it particularly dangerous. But, on paper, the Ursa seem not very well equipped to move around. Obviously they cannot see. . . but there’s no suggestion they blunder into trees or fall off cliffs. Indeed, once they get the scent, they are fixed on a given “prey animal”, and ignore others around them until the one selected is dead. Quite how they decide the prey is dead is not explained. Perhaps they can hear the heart stop beating. No wait, that can’t be right.
At this point I need to explain the phenomenon of ghosting. A human who develops a powerful control over his or her emotions, can become invisible to the Ursa, i.e. the body of these individuals stops secreting the chemicals associated with fear. A ghost can physically walk up to an Ursa and get nothing more than a puzzled reaction. This is convenient because the bioengineers have built in some tough defences for their creatures. But if you can get close enough, you can stick your magic blade in through the cracks and deliver a fatal blow. In Pitch Black, Riddick ghosts a large predator, i.e. stands in front of one and is not detected. This is explained. The alien has radar projectors on either side of its substantial skull and Riddick is able to stand absolutely stationary in a blind spot directly in front of it. When the alien moves, it sees the human in the same way it might detect a utility pole, i.e. as a narrow inanimate object. Yet the Ursa seem not to be able to detect a human by any means other than the scent of fear. The tactics for fighting one are therefore interesting. Teams of eight surround one of the beasts. Once it imprints on one, the other seven are then free to close in on the beast and kill it. Except, of course, once seven humans start pricking it with their blades, this beast gets not a little upset and, with six paws to strike out with and a head full of teeth, it can randomly disable the attackers without directly perceiving them. So it can feel when it’s pricked, and it can find doors and walk through them, but it can’t detect a human unless it’s afraid. It seems these alien bioengineers have gone to a lot of trouble to manufacture a predator that’s severely handicapped. When the bioengineers were developing the chameleon-like ability to camouflage to the point of invisibility, you would think they would have given their beasts more sensory input and tracking skills.
As a standalone novel, Peter David has done a good job in providing a context for the main action. We have a wealth of backstory on the ironically named Raige clan — they do get worked up sometimes but stay calm in a crisis. They are natural leaders who manage both to inspire confidence in the people they lead and to show powerful intellectual abilities. It’s thanks to their commitment that the best of Earth leaves the planet and settles on multiple worlds. When the aliens turn up and start releasing Ursa to drive us away, they organise the defence and, ultimately, develop the right mental state to ghost the Ursa. Not surprisingly, the tiny percentage of people who can successfully ghost have either spent generations breeding for the possibility or have been psychologically predisposed not to show fear. They are cold fish and this explains why the father and son in this film have this strange relationship. As an action adventure, I can visualise what this must look like on screen and it’s one cliché after another. This is not Peter David’s fault. He’s just picking up the money to write the novelisation. I was interested in the overarching context but found the immediate adventure, coming-of-age plot tedious.
There are three short stories bound into the volume by Robert Greenberger, Michael Jan Friedman and Peter David. The second by Friedman is the best thing in the book, asking and answering the question of what might happen if humans decided to modify the brain of one of their soldiers so that he could ghost. This is a natural progression from the aliens bioengineering their predators. Why can’t humans modify themselves to fight back? There’s a lot of cod psychology on display throughout and I find myself relieved I did not pay to see this film on a big screen. Assuming the book to be an accurate version of the story, it’s not worth seeing but I might watch it anyway for comparative purposes.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.