Thursday, July 7, 2016

Book Review: Independence Day: Crucible (2016)

Last week I saw the big-budget science fiction epic Independence Day: Resurgence, a film that left much to be desired. Here's my review. The podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood will be doing a special podcast to discuss the film, much like we did for Jurassic World last summer. I'll also do a "how I would have done it" post like what I did for the original Mortal Kombat and Star Wars The Force Awakens, but until then, content yourself with my review of Greg Keyes' new novel Independence Day: Crucible that covers the twenty years after the original Independence Day...

The Plot

Twenty years have passed between the War of 1996 in which the genocidal Harvester aliens were narrowly defeated on the Fourth of July. Independence Day: Resurgence opens up with a world at peace, transformed by the widespread adoption of alien technology and where petty human feuds have been put away to face a dangerous universe. Only the dregs of the Harvester threat remain, locked in battle with warlords in central Africa, and they're obviously on the way out.

How did we get from Captain Steve Hiller (Will Smith) and Dr. David Levinson (Jeff Goldlum) walking away from the fallen fighter with cigars alight to this brave new world? Well, read Independence Day: Crucible and find out...

The Good

*Keyes captures the character voices really well. He does a particularly good job capturing Hiller and Dr. Levinson, in particular Hiller's swagger and penchant for one-liners and Dr. Levinson's Goldblum-esque verbal tics.

*Keyes comes up with a creative use for the aliens' tentacle-driven telepathy--controlling captured humans so the aliens can use human weapons. Hiller, flying a mission in support of Russian troops attacking aliens dug into an old Soviet base after the fall of the City Destroyers, finds out the hard way.

*We see how the friendship between Dylan Dubrow-Hiller (Will Smith's stepson) and the young Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth's character) begins. We also see that Dylan had longstanding romantic feelings for Patricia Whitmore, which I said in my review would have improved the characterization in the film no matter how cliched love triangles are in an age of young-adult dystopias like The Hunger Games. We also see the "territory issues" he develops with Jake over Patricia, which should have made it into the movie. We also see the chip on his shoulder the orphaned Jake has due to his familial situation and childhood poverty, his resentment of Dylan, and how Dylan desperately wants to get out from under his stepfather's shadow, all of which are only vaguely touched on in the movies.

*There's a whole back-story for Dikembe Umbutu, the Congolese warlord who controlled the only intact City Destroyer. In the movie we see his lingering anger at his father who, fearing the return of colonialism, refused to allow outsiders to support his people in their war with the remaining aliens and his zeal for defending both his people and all of mankind when the Harvesters return. In the book we follow him for twenty years, from when he's an art student in Britain to his return to his homeland in the aftermath of the first invasion to how he turns against his increasingly-insane father. There's also a whole back-story for the territory he controls--it was originally a province of the Republic of Congo, which broke up after the aliens destroyed the capital Kinshasa.

*The book is clearly built on 1990s geopolitics. Pre-Putin Russia is largely irrelevant and the major international relationship is between the United States and China. When President Whitmore meets with the leader of China (a junior member of the Politburo who took over after most of it died with Beijing), the major issues are Taiwan and Tibet. The one-child policy so hated by human-rights activists comes up several times. This makes a lot of sense--Russia in the 1990s was in a bad place and getting hammered by the aliens would make it worse. China was on the rise and the hammering from the aliens was compensated with all the goodies captured alien technology could provide.

*There's plenty of foreshadowing for Captain Hiller's fate, especially once we start getting into the middle of the book.

*We meet Jiang, future commander of Earth's lunar defense system, and he's just as much of a hardass as he is in the movie even though he's much younger.

*There's friction between Dr. Levinson and his father about children (namely how he and his ex-wife, whom he later remarried, didn't have any) and religion as well. I don't remember the first movie very well but I think the elder Levinson didn't like his son's choice of career, calling him a TV repairman. Here they've just found new issues to fight about.

*Keyes' is very detail-oriented and builds on small stuff from the original movie. Boomer (the dog belonging to Capt. Hiller and his family) appears early in the book, while Hiller's "I COULD HAVE BEEN AT A BARBECUE!" is expanded into a strong love for grilling out.

*The book depicts how much life sucks for ordinary people, even in a wealthy country like the United States, after the invasion. Jake is part of a group of summer campers in the California countryside whose families either die with Los Angeles or are scattered and cannot find them. The "lost boys of Sudan" come to mind. The head of the camp tries to keep them safe in the mountains, but his son's leg injury forces him to bring them down into a refugee camp where his son ends up dying for lack of antibiotics. The group takes control of an abandoned motel, fills the pool with dirt to grow their own food, and becomes the nucleus of a de facto orphanage that ends up including the young Charlie, who arrives on his own after the death of a relative who was raising him after his immediate family was killed.

*The book also explores the problem of poverty and education. Jake and Charlie are two of the few from their orphanage who get an education worth a damn owing to their native intelligence and extreme drive to succeed. Most of their peers end up uneducated due to their poverty and lack of opportunity. The gulf between poor schools and wealthy schools is already an issue in our world--the losses both materially and in lives inflicted by the aliens exacerbate an an already-existing problem. The only other time I can remember the effects of an apocalypse on the educational system is the novel Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in which a group of survivors defend a nuclear plant from an anti-technology cult so their grandchildren don't become illiterate peasants fearing thunder gods.

*The book also explores how many cities simply were not rebuilt after the invasion. I would think many of them would simply because the reasons they existed in the first place would still be there and most survivors would want to return home, but there would only be limited funds and many higher priorities. New York, Los Angeles, Mumbai, etc. would likely be rebuilt at least to a degree after such an event, but I could imagine many smaller or less important cities declining or returning to nature entirely.

The Bad

*The aftermath of the alien invasion could have taken books to cover. The early chapters told from the perspective of the young Dikembe describe a battle with alien survivors in the north of England, while the long battle with the aliens back in his homeland is condensed into a few chapters. Hiller helps Russians fight an army of alien survivors, but that's only one chapter. I doubt Keyes would be given a whole series to cover what happened and he's doing the best he can with what he has, but I would have loved some more detail.

*I don't really find the back-story for Jake and Charlie (played by Travis Tope in the movie) particularly interesting, even if it is a serviceable way to explain what the aftermath of the alien invasion is like for orphans and people not named Levinson, Dubrow-Hiller, or Whitmore. Props for Keyes for trying to show how much life for those who aren't part of the pre-war upper class or war heroes and their families sucks, but it just isn't that interesting.

*We don't see any of the youth and back-story for the Chinese pilot Rain (Angelababy) until nearly halfway through the book, although we do meet her father during the last battle with the first invaders. It would have been interesting to see her grow up amid the rebuilding of China, just like we see the US through the eyes of Dylan, Patricia, Jake, and Charlie. Instead we first meet her when she's 13 and her younger childhood, which we see with the other characters, is summarized.

*I still think New York, Los Angeles, and Mumbai--cities explicitly described in the book as being abandoned--would be rebuilt. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, after all, and they were probably proportionately more damaged. I could easily imagine the metro areas being largely intact even if the aliens wiped out the high-density urban cores. Rebuilding could proceed from there.

*Racism probably declined rapidly owing to the alien threat and the probability large-scale population movements would have led to interracial/intercultural relationships forming that in other circumstances would not. However, it would be more realistic if the idea Patricia chose Jake instead of him due to his being black at least occurred to Dylan. Even if he immediately becomes angry at himself for thinking such a thought about a girl he'd known since he was a child and had been close friends for years, even though Dylan doesn't have the massive chip on his shoulder Jake does, the thought might pop up whether he likes it or not.

Assuming he was eight years old (the same age as his actor Ross Bagley) in the first film, he would have spent his elementary school years in pre-war Los Angeles not long after the 1992 riots. Even if the world became immediately color-blind after 1996 (doubtful), racism and class prejudice (his mother is unmarried and works as a stripper) would have left its mark on him. This article here includes an account from an African-American man who was given "the talk" about the dangers of getting into trouble with police when he was seven years old.

The Verdict

If the characterization for Jake, Dylan, and Patricia present in the novel actually made it into the movie, it would be much, much better. Keyes also makes a manful effort to world-build, something I always appreciate. However, the book is a mile wide and an inch deep owing to the need to cover so much history in a relatively short space. 7.5 out of 10.

If it were cheaper I'd have fewer problems recommending it, but it's not worth the $7.99 I paid for the Kindle version. I considered ordering a used print version, but with shipping, handling, and tax it would have been equal to or more expensive than the electronic version and taken me longer to get it. I would strongly recommend you either wait for the price to drop or see if your local library has it.


  1. I think one of the reasons some of the cities weren't6 rebuilt was simply a matter of time and resources. 20 years isn't that long, and considering how much infrastructure was lost, as well as trained people, it makes since that only a few cities with supreme importance were rebuilt. I'm also guessing there would be a huge technology gap. Between the new, ultra-high-tech and what was left after the first war. The only stuff you would build new, would be the most advanced that you could, leaving those that couldn't afford it stuck in an almost scavenger economy, ala Cuba after the embargo.

  2. Good points. CRUCIBLE references the rebuilding of Washington DC for essentially political reasons. With the high costs of the defense grid (Jake references the laser cannon being several trillion dollars and there are a bunch in orbit besides the one on the Moon), much of the *world* might be in a "scavenger economy."

    (CRUCIBLE has the test flight of the not-quite-ready hybrid fighter done because people wanted to see what their tax monies were getting them.)

    Casey Cho from the Alternate History Online Facebook group compares humanity in this period to the Soviet Union. All the money might be going to the military, stinting everything else. Fortunately Stalinism seems to have been avoided.