Saturday, February 16, 2013

Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton


I don’t normally care much when famous people die: not many of the famous people I admire are still alive anyway. But I sure was sad when Michael Crichton went to the big second-hand pulp novel shop in the sky. Who was now going to write ripped-from-the-headlines, so-current-it’ll-be-dated-within-months alarmist techno-thrillers for a public crying out from Dan Brown ripoff over-satiation? Nobody, that’s who.

If Crichton had never done anything else with his life, his rank among the immortals would still be sealed for all eternity because of Jurassic Park, the proverbial good piece of dinosaur fiction. I mean, don’t get me wrong – dinosaurs are amazing. But go on, try to name another well-known book or movie besides Jurassic Park (and, okay, Conan Doyle’s original Lost World) that doesn’t blow T-rex dick. Journey to the Centre of the Earth doesn’t count though because plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs are not dinosaurs, as any six-year-old will tell you. It’s almost as if dinosaurs had only a limited amount of potential for use in fiction, and with his blockbuster novel, Crichton latched onto some sort of supervein of this potential and greedily sucked it all up and filled his book with it, leaving any other aspiring dino-authors with nothing left except tiny, smegma-like splotches of Roger Corman’s Carnosaur

Not. Dinosaurs.

I still love Congo too; Crichton’s 1970’s tech-heavy reinvention of the old-fashioned lost-city-in-the-jungle tale is still great, nonwithstanding the bizarre movie version that had the idiocy to cast Bruce Campbell as opening-scene killer-ape fodder, Ernie Hudson as the campest black man I’ve ever seen, and Tim Curry as the worst-accented Eastern European ever to have come out of the American Midwest.

Get me my agent...

Before his death, Crichton had still been cranking out novels that dealt with technological issues of the day, and while he never quite hit his 1980’s peak again, you were always assured a decent thriller with hearty infodumps to keep you feeling as though you were learning real science without having to, y’know, learn real science. There are less dinosaurs and killer apes in real science anyway, so Crichton wins.

In any case, his publishers must have been thrilled to find not one but two completed novels on his multiple hard drives after his death. That’s what they claim happened, anyway. And seeing as he owed them another two novels on his contract anyway, it was decided to publish them. The first was Pirate Latitudes, and the second was Micro, which was finished by another author. Given the quality of Pirate Latitudes, and the fact that Crichton is known to have been planning a pirate novel since the 70s, I reckon it must be pretty likely that it’s a rather old novel that he had decided not to publish, rather than the next great work he was planning. But before I muse further on this, let’s get onto the story!

Pirate Latitudes begins in 1665 in Port Royal, the short-lived but notorious British-controlled capital of Jamaica. We meet the governor of Jamaica, Sir James Almont, who slaughters pirates ruthlessly in an attempt to keep law in the rowdy town, and lets them hang on the main street for all to see. But all is not what it seems, as a pirate is only classified as such if he is not acting on the behest of the crown. A crown-approved pirate, out pillaging Spanish ships and settlements with the blessing of the British Empire, is not really a pirate but a privateer, and Sir James has no problems with privateers at all. In fact, the booty they bring into Port Royal keeps the town’s economy afloat. Almont is sent a couple of snivelling politicians by London to keep an eye on his dealings, and they are prissy, self-righteous, and are shocked at his dealings with ‘pirates.’

You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.
 When a ship comes in reporting that a Spanish treasure galleon has moored at a remote island, Almont knows that the story refers to the crescent-moon shaped island of Mantanceros, which means ‘slaughter’ in Spanish (subtle, Crichton). The Spanish fort on Mantanceros is controlled by a cruel Spaniard called Cavalla, who it seems has pissed off half the British population of Jamaica at some point.

Almont summons his favourite privateer, Captain Charles Hunter, whom we first meet leaving the bed of a lady so that he can pee out the window into the street. Hunter goes to Almont’s place, and the London politicians look down their noses at his careless, freewheeling ways. To their consternation, Almont and Hunter plan an unprovoked attack on the Spanish at Mantanceros despite a fragile treaty between the two nations, making Hunter an unofficial privateer (and thus technically a pirate), just so that Almont can get rich and Hunter can revenge Cavalla for some ill-defined misdemeanour. Ladies and gentlemen, these are our heroes.

Spielberg has already snapped up the rights to the book, and no part of the story smells more of formulaic movies than what comes next: a classic ‘getting the band back together’ sequence. Hunter has to put together a crack team of killers and psychos to pull off this job, so naturally we get to follow him around Port Royal as he finds each of them in some situation that shows us something about their character, like that scene in Armageddon. He’s worked with them all before, and shared past adventures with many of them. There’s a guy who’s secretly a girl who has such good eyes that she can see sandbanks from the top mast in the dark, there’s a Frenchman who’s the best killer in town but with uncertain loyalties, there’s the Jew who’s really good with slightly anachronistic explosives, and of course a black character who’s a heavy, good at fighting, and conveniently doesn’t have a tongue so he doesn’t have to have any dialogue. How far we’ve come…

Don't forget your 20-sided dice.
 Hunter and his ragtag band, all of whom seem to have fallen foul of Cavalla in the past, set off to teach the foul Spaniard a thing of two about unofficial British justice. They infiltrate the Spanish fort, and have many swashbuckling adventures along the way.

Reading this after finishing the behemoth that was The Terror, I’m struck by how fast everything happens. Perhaps my perspective has been skewed by Dan Simmons’ plodding monster, but it feels as though events and elements in Pirate Latitudes have scarcely been introduced before they’re over and done with. This does make it easy to get into, and several hundred pages will fly past without the reader noticing. Which, really, is good thriller writing, and that’s what Crichton was always known for. There’s no question that Pirate Latitudes, for the first half at least, is a breezy and more-ish read. Wanting to write the best damn swashbuckling adventure, with all the trimmings (and all the clichés) is a pretty worthy goal, in my opinion.

Except that Crichton is better than this. He has been, he can be. The book doesn’t quite have the feel of his other books: it lacks the in-depth research and scene-setting that drags you into the worlds he creates. It lacks believability and immersion. It’s more like a cheesy Hollywood version of the golden age of piracy: enjoyable for sure, but Crichton’s gift was to create factually-accurate  (well…within reason) worlds and still deliver rousing adventures that educated as well as enterted, and seeing him do this with a pirates-of-the-Caribbean setting would have been amazing. Every now and then he reminds you of what he’s usually like: there are dollops of info-tainment that briefly flesh out the pirates’ world, such as when we learn how cannons were operated or how Jamaican courts were run. But these are exceptions.

Another problem is that Crichton really seems to run out of steam about halfway. There is quite a lot of buildup to the Mantanceros raid, but once the characters get there, things begin to move so fast that it just seems silly. Encounters with a giant squid and some cannibals are dealt with so fast, and without fleshing-out, that they might as well not have happened. We never feel like the characters are in any danger. The cannibals themselves are portrayed as stereotypically as possible, and Crichton’s sole research into their habits and culture seems to have come from Saturday-morning cartoons. I’m frankly surprised that he didn’t write that one of them had a bone though his nose or something.

As for the characters, they are even more flat than usual for Crichton. Hunter is an outrageous parody of a manly-man male lead. His constant roguish cheek and acts of derring-do had me picturing him as Errol Flynn. Women throughout the book are either whores or helpless, except the amazing eye girl, who dresses like a man and is merely there to full out the ‘ragtag band’. All women in the book are of course in love with Hunter, and need frequent rescuing by him from being raped by other men. The book finishes with a scheme by Hunter that makes absolutely deplorable use of a woman’s charms (and body).

Don't act like you don't want him.
All of which adds to the suspicion that this is an old book of Crichton’s, and not perhaps one that he would have chosen to be published now. It reads like the work of an able but unoriginal thriller writer from the 70s. So, worth checking out? Eh… maybe. I will say that it made me hungry for more (and better-written) pirate material. Evidently, just enough of the old Crichton magic seeped through to get me interested in the genre, which was a hallmark of his greater works.

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