Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Review - The Long Man by Steve Englehart
Short review: A story told with comic book sensibilities featuring a hero who is more or less a mixture of Captain America and Dr. Strange. Unfortunately, the author digresses to try to give a pseudoscientific explanation of the pretentiously spelled "magick" and ruins a good adventure story.
Fights with the evil Necklace
Now some zombi rape!
Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.
Full review: Steve Englehart is most well-known as a comic book writer, most notable for having penned runs of Captain America, Dr. Strange, and Batman. It is appropriate, then, that Max August, the protagonist of The Long Man, is more or less an amalgamation of these characters. In many ways, August seems to be a throwback to the hyper competent lantern jawed pulp action heroes with special powers like Doc Savage or E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensmen. The title of the book "The Long Man" is a reference to August's magically enhanced longevity - despite being old enough to be a Vietnam veteran in 2007, when the novel is set, Max is physically a thirty-five year old man. The book is ostensibly the sequel to The Point Man, which was out of print for a couple decades but it now being republished.
The plot of the book is fairly straightforward, despite the shadowy nature of Max August's foe, "The Necklace". An old friend asks Max to look into the illness of her doctor, and Max more or less stumbles on to a plot to take over the world, which leads him across the U.S., the Caribbean, and into South America, with magical escapades along the way. Max battles his foes, has numerous scrapes with death, and wins the pretty girl. The only real problem with the action sequences is that there is rarely any real tension in them - Max simply doesn't seem to actually be in serious danger, even when confronting the final "more powerful" villain. To a certain extent, however, the book is a disappointment. The Long Man reveals that having a writing background in another style of media is not a guarantee that one will be able to translate their success into something like a novel. So long as the book sticks to over the top action, the story works. Unfortunately, Englehart seems to feel compelled to provide lots of added explanation for the magical world in which August lives, and that description simply falls flat.
First, I have to digress about spelling. I know it is a somewhat common affectation to use the word "magick" to differentiate between stage magic and "real" magic. And in the book August explains that is why he uses the "magick" with a "k" version. I find this affectation to be really silly and pretentious. At no point in the book does anyone mistake anything that August does for stage magic, nor is there any reason to expect that anyone would. Most books that involve people with real magical powers seem to have no trouble convincing the readers that the protagonist is not Doug Henning. From my perspective, resorting to the use of nonstandard words like "magick" when perfectly acceptable English words with the same meaning are available is a mark of an author unsure of his ability to convey his meaning through the context of the story. Although no one comments on it at length as they do with the "magick" spelling, the "zombis" that show up in the book, also unconventionally spelled, seem to omit the final "e" of the word for much the same reason - to prevent the reader from confusing the "real" zombis of the book with "fake" zombies from movies like Night of the Living Dead. This affectation is also pretentious and unnecessary.
These spelling foibles are fairly small, so one might wonder why I harp on them. I do so because they are indicative of a larger problem with the book. Whenever the action pauses, the author feels the need to have Max try to explain how "magick" works, and the explanations are long, dull, and don't make any sense at all. First, Max insist that he is not a sorcerer, he describes himself as an "alchemist", although in practical terms this appears to be a meaningless distinction. He also posits that he is not using magic, just highly advanced science, comparing his skills to taking a television back to the Sixteenth century. However, Max's skills don't seem to work even like he describes. Max asserts that magic only "influences" things, it doesn't "control" them, supposedly making magic not reliable like science. Then Max goes on to assert all kinds of reliable things about magic: How it can be studied and evaluated, how the Mayan calendar somehow matches up with the first two hundred and sixty asteroids, and how their gravity affects our daily lives and so on. In short, despite Max's constant assurances that magic is inherently unreliable (and thus different from "normal" science) the magic in the book is nothing but reliable.
And the ways used to describe how magic is different from science are just gobbledegook. In reality gravity "only" influences the position of objects, but this does not mean it is not subject to evaluation and scientific inquiry. Gravity does this in a predictable and regular manner. As an aside, I'll point out that astrology, which supposedly "really works" according to August, because of the "influence" of gravity, is, even on that basis, complete hokum. The person standing next to you exerts more gravitational influence on you than Mars, or any of the "two hundred and sixty" asteroids that supposedly link up with the Mayan calendar. I'll also say how very tired I am of the Mayan calendar and how "magical" it is. If August's magic works like gravity, it should be studiable, and more importantly reliable, despite all of his protests that it isn't. And apparently, you study magic by reading all the mythologies of the world and somehow "evaluating" them, despite this supposed unreliability. Because, of course, people working 500, 1,000, or 4,000 years ago were better able to understand how the universe works than we are now. In fact, if magic is inherently unreliable, then it would be inherently unstudiable, as one could not figure out how it works without some regularity. In effect, Englehart is trying to have things all ways: make magic a usable tool, and make it a mysterious and unpredictable force, and connect it with apparently every magical tradition in the world. And in trying to make these irreconcilable ideas work together, Max spends large chunks of the book pontificating nonsense, which makes for tedious reading.
Of course, magic use is also apparently pretty common in the Caribbean and Suriname (because, presumably, they haven't been contaminated with silly ideas like "science"), with magical casters popping out of the woodwork left and right, which makes one wonder why those regions are so desperately poor. This is one of the random inconsistencies that make the book so frustrating, like the author came up with some cool ideas, but didn't bother to think them through for even five minutes.
But the mixture of fun action plus tedious nonsense explanations adds up to merely a mediocre book. What drives the book into the "less than mediocre" category is the utter idiocy of the villains and their plan, and more importantly, a nasty undercurrent of misogyny that runs through the story. The evil villainous organization, called variously "the Necklace" and the "Free Range Coalition" is a sort of comic book archetype - the shadowy underworld operators who are secretly controlling everything. They apparently control large chunks of the U.S. government, several corporations, as well as most of the criminal enterprises in the country. They appear to be well-connected across the world as well. So what is their master plan? To use zombis to release sarin gas in Suriname allowing them to take over the country and get their U.N. vote. Yep, you read that right. An organization that is powerful and well-connected enough to get someone assigned to (and tortured at) Camp X-Ray on a whim has, as its master plan, the takeover of a tiny South American nation so as to control its U.N. vote. The real oddity here is that the necklace appears to pretty much control Suriname already, since when Max is flying his way there, they manage to get the Suriname air force to mobilize to shoot him down. And of course, this is even sillier when one considers the complicated nature of the plan, requiring them to train mindless zombis to first make sarin, and then engage in a complicated series of maneuvers so they can kill off much of the population of the nation they wish to control, that they pretty much already control. As Frederick Forsyth demonstrated in The Dogs of War, there are much easier ways to topple the government of a tiny third world country making the whole exercise seem so ludicrously stupid that I think Stan Lee would have told Englehart to go back to the drawing board if he had proposed this plot for any of Marvel's titles.
Making this even sillier is the repeated mantra of the book that "the Necklace never fails", when all they do in the book is fail time and again. Max foils every one of their plots, and disposes of every enemy they send against him. The ultimate villain, the evil Aleksandra, is little more than a wooden villain: She hates Max August because she's evil, and she's evil because she hates Max August. It is possible that her character was fleshed out more fully in The Point Man, but leaving her with as little character development as she has in this book is simply an unforgivable omission.
The ugliest thing about the book is the misogyny that runs through it. Most is more or less subtle and would have been just a foible. The ingénue of the piece, Dr. Pam Blackwell, is little more than sex candy for Max to resist for much of the book as he mourns his long dead wife (killed by Aleksandra years before). The whole story is kicked off by a magical attack on Pam, from which Max has to save her. Later, another female character becomes the only person on the "hero" side killed in the conflict that rages through the story. Aleksandra, the mastermind villainess, seems to be little more than a prop to serve as a foil for Max. A lesser villainess is portrayed as nothing more than a drug addled sex fiend (despite supposedly being one of the most successful drug traffickers in Miami). But all of these fade into the misogynistic background when the subplot (and I use that term loosely here) involving Nancy Reinking crops up.
Nancy is a minor villain working for the Necklace in the story. She sets Pam up to be killed early in the book, and was quickly found out by Max, who puts her into a magically induced sleep. She is later discovered by some other Necklace operatives and freed. They then fly her to Camp X-Ray and imprison and torture her to make sure she didn't tell Max anything about the Necklace or the FRC. There is almost no point to this storyline, as whether she told him something or not is of no consequence to the rest of the story. However, Englehart returns over and over to scenes of torturing Nancy in what can only be described as sexually sadistic ways: she is stripped naked to be water-boarded, she is left to lie in her own waste, she is raped by a zombie, and so on. All told in loving detail. And all completely pointless. It is as if Englehart felt like he had to pad the page count and couldn't come up with anything better than to include a bunch of scenes in which a woman is tortured for no real plot related reason. There is also the implication that late in the book, after Pam has been captured, she is subjected to (or merely threatened with) similar treatment. This is all completely gratuitous and pointless (Englehart attempts to make some political commentary here, but it is clumsy and forced, and completely extraneous to the actual story). Every page wasted on the Nancy Reinking subplot is basically garbage that should have been excised by a decent editor as a worthless digression that adds nothing to the book, and actually, makes it substantially worse.
The main problem appears to be that in the transition from comic book writing to novel writing, Englehart didn't shift emphasis. A lot of things that are necessary in the comic book genre - like broad stereotypes such as the drug addled sex fiend cocaine trafficker - simply don't work well in a novel, where one has more time and text to flesh out less clichéd characters. In a comic book, there likely would have been less effort to "explain" magic as well, which would have improved the story significantly. The transition seems to have also brought with it some problems with viewpoint, as the viewpoint seems to shift from third person limited to third person omniscient at the drop of a hat. The Long Man is 376 pages long. It would have been a much better book if it had been half that. Then the extended tedious explanations of magic and the pointless torture scenes could have been excised. If one could read only the pulpy adventure portions of this book, it would get a modest recommendation. As this is not possible, and despite the potential the book shows, it gets a frustrated thumbs down.
Previous book in the series: The Point Man
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