Monday, January 04, 2010

Monday's Forgotten Book: Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead

Should I save this for the coming Friday or write about it now? I've noticed that if I don't write about books or movies I've read or seen at once, I just don't write about them. So here's a new series: Monday's Forgotten Books. It's possible that this will be the only entry.

Now, is anything by Michael Crichton really forgotten - now that Hard Case Crime brought out two early outings by him as "John Lange"? And Eaters of the Dead was made into a film, The Thirteenth Warrior, with Antonio Banderas in the lead. Forgotten?

At least in Finland. For some reason or another, the book has never been translated in Finnish. Eaters of the Dead was originally published in 1976. My battered paperback copy I purchased for 50 cents recently is from the nineties, when the movie was coming out. You can see from the film's credits in the back cover that the movie was supposed to be called Eaters of the Dead, but then it was changed, for some reason, into The Thirteenth Warrior. Maybe "Eaters of the Dead" was thought to be too garish. The reprint has a 1992 afterword by Crichton, in which he tells anecdotes about making of the book. It's interesting in its own right and gives some background to what Crichton did with his novel. [Editing the entry and Googling for links I notice that the Wikipedia article on the film has many anecdotes about making the film.]

Eaters of the Dead is essentially a postmodern novel, since many - if not all - of the sources Crichton mentions are fictional. The book consists of the diary of one Ibn Fadlan, an Arab diplomat travelling to the city of Bulgar and meeting a bunch of Vikings in the way. He's assigned to be the thirteenth warrior when the Vikings are told to come back to help their king fighting an anonymous enemy. (This assignment must be the weakest element in the book. I couldn't decide whether it was logical or not. It might've been better if Ibn Fadlan had followed them by his own choice.) In the North, they fight against hairy beasts that may or may not turn out to be Neanderthals. There's also some fighting amongst the Vikings, and some anthropological notions about the Vikings and their habits. Seems like Crichton has done his homework - but of course I'm not sure, since I don't know much about Vikings.

This is not a straight-forward adventure novel, mainly due to the ancient diary style Crichton mimicks. But it's still a gripping yarn. There are some good horror scenes with the Neanderthals attacking in the night. The book has some connections to Beowulf - even though Crichton admits in his afterword the chronology is way off -, which are not necessary to decipher if one simply wants to enjoy the adventure. Crichton also gives a possible and plausible explanation to the dragon-like monster described in Beowulf.

All in all, I enjoyed the novel. It was actually my first Crichton, but I'm not very interested in his other work - beside the John Langes which I may read in the future (and possibly Congo, another of his early novels, but I found much to dislike in the film). I'd very much like to see this translated in Finnish, but I don't think I'd be up to it. I'm not sure though who'd make a good publisher for this: the SF/fantasy folks don't necessarily want to read Crichton and the usual Crichton readers might be put off by the postmodern narrative techniques.


Unknown said...

I liked this one, both book and movie. I liked CONGO, the novel, too. The movie, not so much.

Juri said...

I kind of remembered that you did, Bill. I'll have to see if I can find a copy of Congo cheap.

Unknown said...

If you can try and get the 1977 Bantam edition of EATERS. It has some beautiful, eerie illustrations by Ian Miller.

Evan Lewis said...

Sounds like historical adventure to me, and danged interesting. Thanks!

George said...

I've enjoyed all of Michael Crichton's books. Bill is right about CONGO (good book, so-so movie).