Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Jeff Long - The Descent


Like many great works of Horror and Science Fiction, Jeff Long's The Descent forces terror and awe upon the reader by a vast widening of scale. The Descent is all about what lies below. The Earth beneath our feet is filled with tunnels. And those tunnels are populated by evolutionary offshoots of man. The Hadals are brutal and calculating. Once, they were grand as well. Now they are coming up. As the synopsis on the back so states, We are not alone. Long uses this well conceived premise to create a few stunning scenes and images. That, however, is not to say that The Descent is an excellent novel, a good novel, or even a competent novel. It is not.

To be fair, The Descent does start off well and is not devoid of moments of awe later. The questions it poses about the Hadals' origins and evolution are fascinating and seem initially well grounded. Our early hints of their culture are rich with promise. The first chapter is a richly atmospheric piece of claustrophobic Horror. When a group of major characters begins to explore the subterranean world, the underground river and later sea that they encounter are incredible to first glimpse.

But The Descent suffers from two key problems, the first of which is that of how much stuff is packed into this novel. By stuff, I mean plot. No, wait, plots. As in, different plots. As in, Long is unable to resist changing the narrative focus of the novel every few dozen pages. The first four chapters, the first hundred pages, don't feature a single recurring perspective, and the novel doesn't cohere much afterwards. The few broad plots are constantly hampered by continuous sub plots that spring out of nowhere and go nowhere, a tendency of Long's that is certainly not helped when he realizes halfway through that he can stop chapters midway and give us one off characters as they experience various Incidents that never amount to anything. Developments as massive as proven reincarnation come out of nowhere and are never explored.

Don't think that, just because something is the main plot, it can't be demoted to sub plot and then demoted once more to forgotten. By the halfway point, we've moved on from almost every one of the questions of the novel's beginning. Entire characters fall through the cracks. One major character realizes that, when he let the expedition proceed without him, he got left behind by the plot. So he goes beneath the surface to chase after it. Alas, he is too slow, and we don't hear about him for hundreds of pages. When he does return, it's both briefly and irrelevantly.

But, ultimately, Long's problem is one of logic. By that, I mean that just about every single piece of The Descent's grand revelation is eventually unmistakably a mess of contradictions, stupidity, and nonsense. These innumerable holes serve to sabotage not only the novel's plot but its characters and pacing.

After a painfully slow build up composed of individually competent pieces – the novel's first 103 pages are composed of four almost unrelated chapters – the world finally sees not only the Hadals but the massive underworld beneath its feet. Armies descend. They encounter no resistance, meet not a single Hadal. They descend further and further. Thousands of men descend beneath the Earth, exploring miles of ground no one thought existed. Then all of the rising tension seems to explode. We have come to what the characters later call the "decimation" (p. 112). Having lulled the humans into a false sense of complacency, the Hadals strike on an international scale. They slaughter all resistance. They slay a quarter of a million soldiers (p. 113).

That seems like the beginning of a grand conflict, no? No. Within pages, the decimation is forgotten. By everyone. No more Hadals are spotted. Private companies and militaries descend again and encounter no one. They assume that all is safe. Before long, we are hearing countless statements like "A lot of people think the hadals have died off." (p. 170) Just in case this assumption, coming mere months after a quarter of a million armed men made that assumption and paid for it with their lives, isn't quite dumb enough, we learn soon enough that "All around the country. All around the world. […] We know they're coming up into our midst. There are sightings and killings ever hour, somewhere in metro and rural America." (p. 223) Lest you think the page differences between the quotes mean that the Hadals were thought gone, then returned again, here's another, this one from after we have confirmed, constant, and continuous sightings of them: "We are not even sure they exist anymore." (p. 237)

So Long is setting up the dumber than bricks human race for a second fall, right? Wrong. See, Long forgets the decimation too. In fact, as we learn more of Hadal culture, we see that their grandness is all in the past. They are a fallen race, and they now number scant thousands. Those few that we see could never pull something like the decimation off. They show no sign of ever having even attempted such a thing. All I can think to explain it is that the decimation was a holdover from an earlier draft – or perhaps an entirely different novel with a somewhat similar concept – that was somehow dropped in a fifth of the way through the book to permanently ruin any kind of pacing or coherency that Long was going for.

So the Hadals prove to be no threat. In fact, every single Hadal character – slaughtering or not – that we see is actually a human that was captured by them and became a part of their culture. Long may have set an entire novel around the Hadals' existence, but he'll be damned if he so much as names one of them. But the true villains of the novel – or at least some of them – turn out to be characters that were totally irrelevant at the beginning and suddenly matter halfway through: random power hungry humans!

The evil corporation Helios, organizers of the previously mentioned expedition, is going for world domination, or at least underworld domination. The expedition I mentioned previously turns out to be a rights grab by Helios, in which they scheme to control the entire sub-planet. Of course, being somewhere first doesn't necessarily confer ownership, but the army (US or otherwise) seems disinclined to stop them for… some reason.

As for the expedition itself, it is, who is surprised, a mess of inconsistencies. It takes place below the surface and is resupplied by drilling through the sea floor to drop down supplies. So why doesn't the ocean rush in after those supplies? No idea. If they know exactly where the underground trail will take the scientists well enough to drill down supplies at the right spots, why do they need to explore it? If they can send down people with these supplies (as they do once but only once), why don't they explore it in that fashion?

But the expedition is only where Helios' plans begin. See, Helios has an ace up their sleeve to stop the nonexistent Hadal threat. They have what is genuinely the absolute worst super villain plan I have ever encountered. Meet Prion 9, the horrific and endlessly reproducing poison gas that they plan to cleanse the underworld with. It kills all life it encounters in under two seconds. But fear not, humanity, it can't get up to the surface, for It only lives – and only kills – in darkness. It dies in sunlight (p. 311). It was at this point that my jaw simply dropped and I couldn't help but wonder why nobody had ever bothered to inform Helios' genius researchers of the existence of the fucking NIGHT.

I still haven't gotten to the most illogical part of the book yet, still haven't gotten to Satan. See, the underworld is decided to be where myths of hell came from. From this, a group of scholars have, as they so farcically put it, deduced the existence of Satan. To be fair, when this is first brought up, they quickly point out that they are looking for THAT Satan. No, they are merely using that as a term for the Hadal's leaders. They then follow that immediately with: The term Satan signifies a historical character. A missing link between our fairy tale of hell and the geological fact of it. Think about it. If there can be a historical Christ, why not a historical Satan? (p. 161)

The above tells us two things: 1) we are looking for Satan-Satan, I guess. 2) The speaker, all appearances to the contrary, is spellbindingly stupid and is practicing something unspeakably far from any sort of academic or scientific method. Beyond which, I can't help but point out that Satan's companion would not be Jesus but God and that Satan was never supposed to be a mortal wandering about Earth.    

To be honest, criticizing the scholars' reasoning is almost insultingly easy and feels less like arguing with a theory than it does sniping at homophobic youtube commenters' attempts at argument. But that's the poor lot of the reviewer. Their evidence – we get to hear quite a bit of it – is an attempt to synthesize various bits of Satan's mythology (non Judeo-Christian aspects of mankind's racial history not welcome) into a coherent psychological profile. Into this gets swept up a fair few things having little to do with Satan, like the Shroud of Turin, a proud exemplar of the pseudo logic employed by Long's characters, in which they take small details and draw absurd conclusions from them as they are hurtled along their mindless path by Long's authorial hand.

One character states that the Shroud is a fake. Okay, fair enough. It's not an image of Jesus. Alright, that would go with the fake bit. It's the image of the faker. Okay, still comprehensible. That faker is obviously Satan, because he was a trickster that was attempting to infiltrate Christian culture through their own image (p. 283). This is perfectly sound reasoning, because, as we know, there has never been another trickster in the world, nor another propagandist. This not only might be Satan but MUST be him, and it is a prime example of how every single glimpse of these infernal scholars goes.

There is a certain point at which a plot hole stops being something to pick at and simply swallows the novel. This is a novel constructed almost entirely of such plot holes. They render the story a staggering mess that shifts and degrade before our eyes. By the halfway point, the opening is essentially forgotten. None of its intriguing questions are answered. A great illustration of the way the novel shifts (endlessly) can be seen in how, early on, the expedition picks up a radio signal from one of its members that is digitally dated months in the future. As we are still in the early part of the novel, where we are concerned with evolutionary questions and scientific names, the scientists tear into this with all sorts of logical objections. Hundreds of pages later, the fellow makes the transmission in complete earnestness. None of the earlier problems with it are mentioned. The Descent does not answer or transcend the questions of its opening. It forgets about them. It becomes a different book.

The reader is forever prevented from investing in the expedition's journey because that journey shifts wildly every once in a while. There is no organic development to speak of in this novel. Instead, endless new plot threads run in and stampede over whatever build up there was. Since these plot threads are conjured from thin air, they cannot be anticipated and destroy all semblance of tension. None of the individual scenes save the first chapter are good enough to stand up to this disjointedness.

The characters, hamstrung by their sudden dips and rises in focus, are not enough to save the book. For some reason, much of its cast is involved in the Catholic religious order, including the nun, Ali, who is our main viewpoint for the expedition. To say that she does not come off as a nun is an absurd understatement. She never thinks about the Catholic Church's position on Hadals (surely it must have one?), never questions what the Pope might say about a quest to find Satan. She abandons her vows and then claims to still strictly follow God without so much as a rationalization to explain the cognitive dissonance. In fact, she rarely thinks of God at all and certainly never in particularly Catholic terms.

The rest of the cast is either nothing at all or a flashy surface hiding nothing. Besides Ali, the only memorable cast member is Ike, star of the first chapter, who begins and dies as a fascinating enigma. He was captured by the Hadals and held by them for eleven years. That is the very foundation of his character. And yet we never hear about it. For all his promise, he amounts to naught. The scholars and their god awful Satan theory go either no deeper than names or, like Ali, have extremely unusual backgrounds (such as the blind, excommunicated fellow) that don't actually shape them at all. The expedition is made up of Ali, Ike, and a bunch of names and one note repetitions, such as the whiny fellow or the other whiny one.

The Descent is not a novel without good ideas. But those ideas are strung together with shoestring and nothing. This is a mess.

6 comments:

  1. It's been years, but I remember reading that book. I couldn't stop reading it because of the whole "plot trainwreck" factor, plus the increasingly bizarre and strange religious stuff that you mentioned. I mean, Jesus, by the end he's got "Satan" being this bizarre body-jumping ghoul, and . . . it's such a mess, I have trouble even explaining it.

    By the way, if you thought this book was strange, apparently Jeff Long produced another book in that setting - a sequel - which gets even more bizarre. Something about a cult, Ike being guided by a supernatural being called "the Angel", etc. None of which even remotely makes me want to touch this book with a ten-foot pole, never mind read it.

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  2. So why doesn't the ocean rush in after those supplies? No idea.

    That potentially opens the can of worms that is discussing the total lack of plausibility that is the geology of the sub-planet.

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  3. Such a mess it's hard to even explain is not a bad characterization of this book. I do have to admit, though - I am somewhat tempted by the sequel. Clearly, he can't pull it together. But another book full of... whatever this was? It doesn't seem like it could be possible.

    Oh, and I might as well mention here that this wasn't my first time reading The Descent. I read it when I was very young (seven?) and LOVED it. Coolest thing I'd ever seen. Then I lost the book and thought nothing of it for years. I started it over the summer, realized a few chapters in that I'd read it, got excited, and then... this.

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    1. I'm wondering how Jeff Long got away with it. My best guess is that by the time he wrote The Descent, he'd already written three successful books and developed an Anne Rice-style allergy towards editorial control on his books, which he got away with because he had guaranteed sales.

      If you just skim it on the surface without thinking about it at all aside from, "Cool, super-underground caves!", you probably don't notice the suckage quite as much.

      Clearly, he can't pull it together. But another book full of... whatever this was? It doesn't seem like it could be possible.

      Wikipedia has a pretty detailed plot summary, if you want to get an idea of how sucktastic it's going to be.

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  4. Crappy book aside, the unrated version of the 2005 movie is really good. About the only thing it has in common with the book is the idea of a humanoid population that has evolved to dwell within an unexplored cave system, and that's what makes it good.

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  5. After having read through that wiki summary, my main thoughts are: "Huh?" and "What?" Seems like it certainly doesn't calm down at least. You'd think after the third time everyone thought the Hadals would extinct and was proven wrong they'd actually, I don't know, check.

    I could see the movie being pretty cool, though. The concept is still a cool one. Providing it told a single story rather than twenty-five and didn't go mad halfway through...

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