Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #139: Creature Tech by Doug Ten Napel

When people say that a book "reads like a movie," they're not necessarily being complementary. Sure, they could mean that it describes scenes so precisely they can be immediately imagined, that characters are strongly drawn, and that the plot flows quickly and energetically. But they could equally mean that it's full of shallow thinking and bland second-hand ideas, cobbled together to follow the same structure as every other story in a currently-popular genre.

Doug Ten Napel's first major graphic novel, Creature Tech, is very much like a movie, in both the good and bad ways: it's full of stock characters and situations, it moves quickly with impressive energy, it elides a million follow-up questions, and it's full of a dodgy, bizarre cosmology that mixes Christianity-is-absolutely-true (even to aliens!) with mad science of both technological and necromantic varieties. It wasn't Ten Napel's first major story to see the light of day -- he created Earthworm Jim for several media a few years before, among other things -- but it might have been the first work he felt wholly in charge of and in control of, which could explain why he seems to have thrown everything but the kitchen sink in here, mostly without adequate explanation.

So: we have a secretive government research operation (run by a functionary With A Secret), a salt-of-the-earth American Small Town, the Smart Guy who got out of that town and was dragged back against his will, his globally-recognized-scientist-turned-Amish-looking-pastor father (who of course Does Not Approve of his son), the necromancer who has been dead for a hundred and fifty years but isn't as dead as he should be, alien symbiotes, Christianity-cum-Green-Lantern-Corps, the mostly neglected and utterly uncharacterized Love Interest, various Yokels Who Have More Depth Than They Appear, and an army of demon cats. Oh, and the Shroud of Turin -- the real one, which can raise the dead by touch. And let's not forget the giant space eels.

Ten Napel's later books have a similar headlong rush of concepts and action -- I've previously read and liked his books Ghostopolis, Cardboard, and Bad Island -- but Creature Tech comes from a younger, less formed Ten Napel, and it's lumps do not simmer down into a single soup of a story, but remain floating separately and bouncing off each other now and then. Ten Napel cares about questions of morality and spirituality in all of his books, but here he's nakedly proselytizing for the particular flavor of Christianity that he favors -- and, even worse, he doesn't give himself time to do more than basically mention Jesus, slag off science, and declare victory.

(Literally: the hero's father, a former scientist, claims that he turned to religion because evolution requires an "intelligent designer." This is pure bunkum: plenty of scientists are religious, in all sorts of ways, but there's no scientist who became doctrinaire on the subject after deep study of evolution. They may believe in a "celestial watchmaker" for those reasons, but not the poking-his-finger-in-at-every-step kind of meddling God, because the deep historical record proves such a God did not interfere. This is a particularly stupid choice for a apologetic, because Christianity has so many actual strong points; it's like insisting that Earth is the still center of a moving universe because the Pope said so.)

Ten Napel tries to paper over the dislocations and changes in tone with snappy dialogue and one-damn-thing-after-another plotting, and it almost works: this is a zippy, fun book, with lots of fighting and quipping, and it's definitely a page-turner. But the religion is a big indigestible lump, and the dialogue around it is full of dog-whistles and just plain non sequiturs. The villain is just randomly evil, as well: he's not trying to do much of anything, just summon giant space eels to prove he can. All in all, it's a promising book: it shows the kind of thing Ten Napel would do better later, and illuminated some of his core concerns in a purer and more obvious way than his later books.

(Also: the entire plot could have been avoided if said villain used a stick to move a lever on page eight. Just saying.)

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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