Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Cylon Death Machine - Glen A. Larson and Robert Thurston





I have read my second novel based on the original 1970s TV show, Battlestar Galactica. When I was eight in 1978 the book based on the pilot movie was my favourite book of the year. It just struck a chord with me - giving me more of the space opera swash and buckle I’d loved so much in the previous year’s Star Wars. In some ways Battlestar was even better, with its insect monsters, furry robots and follow-on TV show.

            For some reason it has taken me forty years to move on to book two. Not sure why. I think I was less keen on the ‘Gun on Ice Planet Zero’ episode that the novel is based on. However it’s by the same author(s) – Glen A. Larson and Robert Thurston, so this world of Battlestar Galactica in print is immediately recognizable. What I remember is the consideration the authors give to the interior voices of the two leaders – Adama for the humans, and the Supreme Leader for the Cylons. There was always something creepy about the monstrous, glittering-eyed being sitting at the top of that plinth, even on TV. In the books we learn that he has three brains and a mania for routing out every last human being by any means necessary. I love all the bits of Cylon culture we learn about. Surprising bits to do with the suppression of written language. The Cylons are free to create poetry – but they must never write it down. Odd nuggets of invention like that are what gives this strange series its distinction.

            Much of the book comes narrated by the criminal, Croft, who is hoisted from the depths of a prison ship along with some of his fellows, because the computer has judged their mountaineering skills the most useful for a mission to the ice world on which most of the book’s action takes place. Croft is a great invention – allowing us to see the first book’s heroes through fresh (and rather shifty eyes.) What was on TV a rather duff story about a mega genius and his ray gun and his race of perfect clones becomes a story about second chances, self-sacrifice and redemption.

            Also, a story about a fluffy robot Daggit called Muffit – always my favourite character in the BS universe. He’s a replacement for the actual, fleshly daggit the child Boxey lost in the first book. There’s a moment here that’s lovely, in which the boy reflects that this second Muffit is almost as nice as the first. Maybe, in his pre-programmed way, he’s not as affectionate. Also, when he licks Boxey’s face his tongue isn’t wet like a real animal’s, it’s dry and scratchy, and so Boxey has to tell him to stop. There’s something very touching in that: the realization that the robot pet is a compromise, and not a perfect one. Novelisations again, proving to be much more subtle in such things than the TV versions.

            My favourite moment of all in the book comes from Commander Adama, who doesn’t really take part in any of the events of the novel. He merely pontificates from his bridge and his office. However, one of his journal excerpts sees him reminiscing about the things that the last remaining humans have lost forever in their flight to safety. He focuses on a single space adventure book he loved as a child – ‘Sharky Star-rover’. When he searches the ragtag fleet’s libraries, he discovers that no one has thought to salvage a single copy of this beloved book of his youth. So he spends a chapter trying to reconstitute its plot, and attempting to account for the power it still exerts over his imagination.

            It’s a very curious – perhaps whimsical – chapter: especially when it comes to the hints of possible romance between the hero and his globular alien pal, Jameson. To this reader the interlude stands out a mile, since it sort of describes my own relationship with books and novelizations of the past. They all belong to a lost era of about thirty or forty years ago. An innocent era, in many ways, in which Sharky Star-rover himself wouldn’t be out of place. Battlestar Galactica is swept up in the nostalgic yearnings I have for that kind of reading pleasure. Was any book as much fun or as absorbing as that particular one you read in 1978..? Is every new / old book you fall upon just another doomed attempt to recapture that feeling?

            I was astonished to find those questions partially answered – at least addressed – by Adama aboard Galactica, back in the day…

            Adama writes: “Clearly, Sharky Star-rover was a flawed book, and perhaps some misguided programmer librarian thought he / she had good reason for not including it in the Galactica computer library. That’s too bad. Sharky’s quest for a more adventurous life seems so similar to our quest for Earth. The story might give us hope when we need it. No matter how much of the book I can reconstruct, no matter how much eloquence I attempt in trying to retell the story to anyone, I’ll never really have Sharky again. So much has been destroyed. So much.’

            I never expected to share Adama’s feelings quite so closely. But in my reading life generally I feel like I’m attempting a great big act of salvage. I’m often reconstituting the things that matter to me, and bringing back the items from culture that other people have chucked out, supposing them valueless. I think I would be keen to bring back Sharky Star-rover and his blob of a best pal, Jameson, too.




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