Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Backlist reread: Subterranean

In the end notes of The 6th Extinction, James Rollins wrote that he would be bringing back more characters from his standalone early novels, and that one of them was actually a pretty big character in that book. The name "Jason" didn't ring a bell, but the repeated references to his parents living in Antarctica should have tipped me off to the fact that he was a character (albeit much younger) in Rollins' first book, Subterranean. I started reading these in college. After stumbling across Amazonia (lost monsters in lost area of the Amazon will terrorize the world if intrepid humans don't stop them) and loving it, I bought paperbacks of everything else Rollins wrote. Subterranean, Excavation, and Amazonia were subject to repeated rereads.

I figured I should reacquaint myself with Jason and his family before proceeding any further in the Sigma Force series, so I grabbed my copy of Subterranean and dove back in. It's very clear that Rollins' writing has improved immensely since that time, which only makes sense, but I also think that he's tried to move away from writing so very many stereotypes. He hasn't totally succeeded, but the Sigma Force books are quite well-written.




Anyway, I really enjoyed my reread of Subterranean. It wasn't as good as I remembered, but it was quite fun and unapologetically silly.

Cultural anthropologist Ashley Carter relishes the solitude of life in the New Mexico desert with her son, Jason. After her husband cheated on her, she doesn't like being around people. You can't trust them. So when obvious government suits invade her home, she is Not Happy. But what they show her is unbelievable: proof of a long-lost civilization under the Antarctic Ice.

Caver and explorer Ben Brust regrets that last foray into restricted government land in Australia. Now he's languishing in a military prison with no hope of escape--and being ex-military himself, he should know. So when his former commander shows up with a pardon and a job offer, Ben leaps at it, even if it means going to the bottom of the world.

Ben and Ashley are obviously meant to be a couple (Rollins does get much more subtle with his relationships in his other books), and Ben plays the role of the cheeky Australian, while Ashley does a rather cranky Tough But Still Hot Single Mom routine. But little relationship hiccups are really the least of their worries. After their arrival at McMurdo station, the team, which includes Khalid Najmon, an Egyptian geologist; Linda Furstenburg, evolutionary biologist; and military commander Major Dennis Michaelson. Ashley was not about to leave her son Jason behind, so he's there too. Thankfully he brought his trusty GameBoy.

Two miles below McMurdo, the team gets their first glimpse of Alpha Base. The cavern where the base is located is enormous, with clear air and bizarre, bioluminescent creatures. The expedition is sent down lava tubes, called wormholes, on collapsible sleds. This seems extremely dangerous to me, but whatever. It's fiction. The deeper they go, the more dangerous it gets, and not just from the strange lifeforms actively trying to eat them.

Khalid is actually a secret jihad agent, sent to destroy the team and gather samples of the giant diamonds in the caves to bring back to his country to save them from the oil market crash. This book was published in 1999, so it's not a post-9/11 reaction (thankfully). It certainly isn't as bad as that one free book I read that kept calling anyone living in the Middle East or Northern Africa or West Asia a "shaggy, one-eyed mullah" (I am not making this up; see review here). When we find out Khalid is actually working for a group of investors, his sabotage makes more sense than trying to "start jihad." It's very awkward to read, especially right now with the whole travel ban and such.

While Khalid is running around planting little cubes of plastique on vulnerable structures, Our Heroes  Ashley and Ben encounter a lost species. These small humanoid creatures are actually like platypuses (platypii??? Help me; it's Latin) in that they are egg-laying mammals. However, they have worked out how to survive in the delicately balanced ecosystem underground, and some of them even have the ability to communicate telepathically.

Here is where the book gets very, very silly: it turns out that Ben, whose great-grandmother was Aboringinal Australian, has these same "heri'huti" mind-melding skills, which is very helpful for the end of the book, when they are fighting T-Rex kangaroos called crak'an and also flying shark-things. This also allows the humans to speak with the mimi'swee because I guess thoughts don't have language. Finally, when Ashley and Ben do have a, ahem, romantic interlude, she immediately gets pregnant and the child will have the same skills as Ben. Yay Mendelian genetics!

In the end, everyone escapes, of course, but Ben, Ashley, Jason, and Baby Heri'Huti remain stationed just outside of McMurdo. In the Sigma novels, we later discover that Jason has built on his GameBoy obsession and become a hacking prodigy, recruited by Sigma Force for his skills. He's very happy to get away from Antarctica, but in The 6th Extinction, they end up back on that icy continent and discover yet another ecosystem beneath the ice. Ashley and Ben reappear at the end of the book and winkingly refer to their studies of the mimi'swee, which also delights me, because I love it when authors create universes with overlap. Love. It.

*This is a vaguely parenthetical aside to point out that I adore books that are set in Antarctica, and the sillier the better. I very much enjoyed Greig Beck's Beneath the Dark Ice as well, which had killer creatures AND elite military forces. Pure catnip for me.*

The writing style of this is a bit rough--Rollins has certain adjectives that he likes a lot, such as "pendulous," and the whole Khalid subplot should just really be changed up in future printings (any references to Islam could be taken out completely and he'd still be a perfectly viable saboteur). All in all, though, this is a fun thriller if you don't mind stretching the bounds of credulity. Like, a lot. In exchange, you get cool animals (Rollins was originally a vet, and that definitely shows in the way he writes about animals--particularly the canines in the later Sigma Force books) and lost civilizations and adventure. Right now, I'll take it.

Four very silly stars for this one.

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