by Steve Alten
421 pages, Apelles
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
I saw a movie last year called “Ninja Assassin”. It was full of flashy special effects, gratuitous violence and, of course, ninjas. In the opening sequence a man has his face sliced in half and the ending has SWAT police armed with assault rifles raiding a ninja temple in the mountains. It was utter crap but if I was ten years old, I'd probably think it was the greatest movie ever made.
I feel the same way about Steve Alten's “Meg”. Alten's bonkers best-seller caused quite a stir when it was first released in 1997. The movie rights were quickly snapped up and a number of sequels have enjoyed similar success. Interestingly, the movie has been stranded in development hell and the rights to the adaptation have changed hands numerous times. From the moment I picked up the tattered paperback copy of “Meg” I knew that if nothing else, I was going to be entertained. Any book that opens with a T-Rex fighting a giant shark is going to get my inner-geek ludicrously excited.
For those who don't know, “Meg” is about a Megalodon, a breed of enormous prehistoric shark that has evaded extinction by hiding out deep in the Mariana trench. When one of the monster sharks makes its way out of the deep waters into the Pacific Ocean, it's up to disgraced Navy submarine-pilot Jonas Taylor to track it down. Taylor's own career hit the skids years previously when a dive into the trench went disastrously wrong and led to the death of two colleagues. His account of the giant shark he spotted deep in the trench was dismissed by his superiors as a hallucination. Jonas spent the subsequent years researching the giant sharks at the expense of both his credibility and his marriage. This knowledge comes in pretty handy when the sixty-foot fishy emerges from the depths.
Anyone with the slightest grasp of storytelling can guess where the story goes from here. Of course, readers don't pick up a book about a rampaging giant shark looking for a complex narrative. There's plenty of bloodshed and nautical mayhem to keep ten year old readers entertained. Whales are ripped apart, yachts are snacked upon and there is a particularly silly sequence involving a surfer riding a wave whilst the Megalodon snaps at his heels. It's clear to see why the studios were keen to buy the movie rights before the book even hit the shelves. However, as one moves from predictable set-piece to predictable set-piece it becomes apparent why production of the movie kept getting stalled. There's very little in this novel that we haven't seen before both on page and on the silver screen. Naturally, comparisons are going to be made with Peter Benchley's “Jaws” and the cinematic incarnations of the legendary Great White shark. Alten's functional storytelling lacks the undercurrent of tension and horror that made Benchley's novel so memorable and the one-dimensional characterisation means that we never really care for Alten's protagonists in the same way we do for the bickering crew of the Orca in Spielberg's classic movie.
I did enjoy “Meg” whilst it lasted and I saw the story through to the end. Sadly, not even the fantastically silly climax inside the shark's digestive tract was able to salvage the novel from being anything other than an amusing distraction. When all is said and done, “Meg” might well aim to be a high-concept blockbuster but it is sadly lacking in bite.
Hereward L.M. Proops