(2018) Rob Grant & Andrew Marshall, Gollancz, £14.99, hrdbk, viii + 464pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22402-5
Though familiar to fans of Red Dwarf, Rob Grant seems to be shamelessly channelling the spirit of Douglas Adams for this Hellzapoppin’ gag-fest riff on The Quatermass stories.
The hapless and hopeless, dragged-along-for-the-ride, Amnesic hero, Brian Nylon (Arthur Dent in all but name), just wants to date the leading lady though she seems to have little interest in him. Brian is convinced that he will die at any time, which seems quite reasonable under the circumstances and predicaments he faces. These include coming face to face with a giant woman made of broccoli, (formerly his own ex-wife). He ends up wearing an experimental Cthulhu bra that he can’t remove. He finds himself trapped up on the Moon in a bus shelter before fighting one of his own clones.
Brian is a spy sent to infiltrate a secret research laboratory to investigate the work of Professor Quanderhorn, a crazed boffin who mostly ends up saving the World from his own preposterous inventions. Thanks directly to Quanderhorn’s meddling, it has been 1952 for 65 years.
Brian gets help and hindrance from a man who is half-insect and so dim that he makes Homer Simpson look like a genius. There is also a cowardly Martian, Guuururk, who sends home reports claiming he is the real hero of the various scrapes the characters get into. He seems very like the alien living with Stan’s family in the US American Dad cartoons.
Then there is Jenkins-Jenkins, the not-too faithful manservant to Quanderhorn. Jenkins steadily reveals his rather undistinguished and shameful military past detail by detail the more drunk he gets as he struggles to clean up the increasing mess the characters create in his life.
The story is written in the style of journals and reports written by each character but given the relentless pacing it is impossible they would have time to write them up. The voices in each point of view rarely change much either.
Quanderhorn is a great creation, unbothered by little details like computer doomsday countdowns always imminent), and given a tendency to call every new weapon he concocts Gargantua.
Winston Churchill turns up in various disguises, though everyone can tell who he is no matter what or who he tries to look like. He provides occasional convenient expositional information and orders for Brian, and plans to destroy Quanderhorn’s labs at the first opportunity.
Characters are simply tipped from one crisis to another. When a massive laser is used to slow down their crashing rocket, the same beam tears open the Earth to reveal a massive pagan tomb full of Indiana Jones style booby traps (and a guard-duck). The heroes are quickly sent into the mysterious chambers by the Professor.
Though very funny, just about surviving the various scrapes never develops the characters, who are simply bounced from each absurdity to the next. Though there is a massive climax built up for and promised it is never really delivered as everything is set to go round in a circle. Like Brian, the reader is cheated out of 1953.
Quanderhorn is possibly too villainous and insensitive to the fates of his team: Quatermass was cantankerous but caring. Much of the humour is staked on Brian facing new extremes just when he thinks everything is as extreme, far-fetched and dangerous as it can get.
There are lots of TV and movie references, most obviously to the Quatermass Experiment, but also The Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, Allo Allo (the Prime Minister’s disguises), War of the Worlds (Guurk is a survivor of the third Martian invasion, and resigned to accepting that Martian death rays don’t work very well), and even The Dam Busters.
Plot-wise, the story disappoints for coming across as a series of interlinked comedy sketches with a token degree of continuity, but the rib-breaking laughs more than make up for the short-comings in narrative structure.
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