I find books to read in a wide variety of different ways. Sometimes, I read a review online or have it recommended to me by a friend; in such cases, I usually know going in what to expect regarding the basic plot and the quality of the writing. Sometimes, however, I’m simply browsing a shelf in a library or a used book store and come across a novel with an interesting title or cover illustration and pick it up on a whim, not knowing what glories or horrors may lurk within. Such is how I picked up The Tartarus Incident, by William Greenleaf.
“Somebody get us the hell out of…” This is the last transmission received from Caitlin Palamara’s audit team. What could never happen is now a terrifying fact. The five-person crew of the ISEA audit ship jack-a-dandy has vanished during a routine skip from sector ship Graywand to the planet Sierra. Palamara and the others find themselves stranded on a hostile, undeveloped planet that bears no resemblance at all to Sierra. They’ve lost communication with Graywand, and their drive system is dead. Just when it seems that things can’t get worse, John Wheeler, who feels a connection with a mysterious alien presence, wanders off and stumbles upon the sprawling ruins of an ancient city. The others have no choice but to go after him. The place is more than a little spooky. But there’s no real danger, right? The city is long dead, abandoned eons ago. Right? Wrong. For Caitlin Palamara’s small audit team, it’s the end of their comfortable routine, and the beginning of the interstellar nightmare that becomes known in ISEA archives as The Tartarus Incident.
This book was published in 1983. I mention this first for reasons which will become apparent. For now, just keep it in mind, okay?
At first, The Tartarus Incident proceeded pretty much as I would expect from a “spaceship crashes on a dangerous planet” story. Malfunction of the hyperdrive, hard landing on an uncharted alien world, ship is damaged, crew are endangered by environmental hazards, so on and such forth. Nothing really groundbreaking; but then, you don’t exactly expect groundbreaking from an obscure pulp sci-fi novel. If the story was truly spectacular, then the name Greenleaf would be as recognizable as Asimov, Heinlein, or Clarke, right? The story was at least meeting appropriate expectations, which is to say it was basically competent storytelling.
The first major misstep, I feel, is when crewman Wheeler goes crazy for what seems like no reason. I know the synopsis implies that he “feels a connection with a mysterious alien presence”, but that doesn’t really come through in the text. The way it’s written, it seems that he spots a long-ruined alien city, has flashbacks to his childhood, mopes that he hasn’t accomplished anything worthwhile in his life, and then comes down with a sudden and instant case of Space Madness.
Actually, the first time I read the passage where he goes crazy, I thought that he recognized the decayed city from his childhood; that the hyperdrive malfunction had flung the ship forwards through time to arrive at a point where the planet was a long-dead ruin, and that the realization of this drove him out of his mind.
I’ve been here before, he thought suddenly, looking down at the city. Then, confused, he shook his head. No, that isn’t possible. He looked out at the city and felt other eyes looking out at it with him. The feeling was too strong to deny. He remembered the city as one remembers the place of one’s childhood, forms and shadows altered by time – the perception of the child changed by intervening years to that of an adult.
– Chapter Seven
But no, they are still in the present time; the sense of familiarity is evidently a result of his mind being influenced by the native aliens. This, however, inevitably raises further questions. Why, of all the crew, is only Wheeler susceptible to the aliens’ malign psychic influence? There’s never any indication that he’s notably different from the rest of the crew, that he’s extra psychic-sensitive or anything, and yet he’s the only one to go insane.
Whatever the cause of his madness, Wheeler steals a vital part from the ship’s engines, causing them to begin a self-destruct countdown, then runs off into the city. The rest of the crew chase after him to get the part back, and stumble into a hive of aliens which begin picking them off one by one. They eventually do succeed in retrieving the part and retreating back to the ship, but too late to stop the self-destruct countdown: while there is still time left, the process has passed the critical threshhold and can no longer be aborted.
It was upon reaching this point of the book that I started experiencing my own nagging sense of familiarity: the sense that this story was a decaying ruin of some past glory. Unexpected landing on an uncharted planet, I thought. Crew leave ship to explore. Discover relics of an ancient alien civilization. Attacked by monsters. Ship is going to self-destruct. Try to abort, but have already passed the point of no return. In space no one can hear you scream? No, wait, that’s…
Maybe it’s a coincidence, I thought. This book is pretty old; maybe it came out before the film? It wouldn’t be fair to accuse it of being a rip-off if it came first. In fact, the scriptwriter for Alien admitted to stealing ideas from tons of sources (The Things From Another World, Forbidden Planet, Planet of the Vampires…), so it wouldn’t be all that surprising if The Tartarus Incident came out first. Which brings me back to the beginning of the review. This book was published in 1983. Alien? 1979.
Even if we’re generous to the author and assume that he never saw Alien, that the similarities were mere coincidence, the story can’t help but come off the worse for existing in Alien’s shadow. It’s Alien-lite, the basic story but lacking any of the truly iconic Alien elements like the chestburster which made that movie a classic instead of… well, just another B-grade schlock sci-fi plot about monsters on an alien world.
This book isn’t the worst sci-fi ever; while there’s nothing really original about it, there’s nothing flagrantly offensive either. Even so, I recommend nuking it from orbit – it’s the only way to be sure.
Final Rating: 2/5