Monday, July 20, 2009

July Book Tour: The Enclave, by Karen Hancock (I)

This is the first of three posts (in keeping with the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour guidelines) about this book. This one will focus on technical details, story-crafting, and characterization; in following posts, I intend to talk about the science and science-fiction aspects of the work and finish up with a post on the Christian elements.

What you need to know about The Enclave: near-future action-adventure centered around mysterious goings-on in a cutting-edge genetics lab. Post-apocalyptic elements. Set in southwest USA. Mild romance. Threat of sexual assault. Lots of gunplay and explosions. Military characters shown in sympathetic manner.

Packaging: Professionally presented trade paperback, with attractive cover (more on that in a sec) and larger-than-usual print face, making it a very thick book (500 pages.) Cover successfully combines suspense (two out of focus figures running down a tunnel) and characterization (pretty lady with rumpled hair, flawless skin, groomed eyebrows and expensive-looking complex earrings.) Back cover is much more subdued, includes a chain-link fence in a desert setting. All in all, I think the cover sells the book and does so accurately.

Overall Reaction (short version, light on spoilers): An engaging story (although slow to start) illustrating Christian principles and Creationist themes. Multiple storylines end up gelling nicely. Multiple POVs that sometimes switch in the middle of chapters, but are generally clearly delineated. Writing is competent throughout and frequently engaging. Sympathetic characters are vividly drawn, if somewhat more thought-driven than skin-driven. I was particularly struck with how the main characters were given to indecision and second-guessing - as well as fumbling through their plans in a fairly realistic manner. Opposing characters (ie 'the bad guys') were less completely handled. The author appeared to engage in anti-scientist stereotyping. Even though the setup is somewhat lengthy, the action, once it gets going, is engaging. There was far less science than I would have liked. Most of the science present was of the X-Philes variety (depending on intervention by aliens/ancient technology rather than the application of the scientific method.) The story was set in the universe of an actively interventionist God, but this due ex machina was believably presented.

More complete reaction, complete with SPOILERS:

What I liked:

The Enclave, while presented at CSFFBT as 'science fiction', to me seemed to be more along the lines of the present-day/near future techno-thrillers (or suspense-thrillers) of Tom Clancy, Micheal Crichton, Dean Koontz, etc. However, it worked better than many of that genre, in that the characterization was decent throughout and (esp) the multiple storylines came together well.

I have a particular weakness for stories in which the author speaks through a character vividly enough that the dual vision (character that has never seen a horse sees a creature that I the reader recognize as a particular breed of horse) is nearly seamless. Hancock is not stellar at this, but she is more than competent, and I enjoyed learning about Zoan's underground world through his eyes. There were parts that worked less well (sometimes having Zoan or his friends bring up something entirely new about the Enclave was interesting and refreshing, other times it seemed more of a cheat.)

The Enclave portions of the story also gave the book a bit of a post-apocalypse feel, which is another thing I tend to like in SFF. And it had goats! Goats always make a story better. (No, not kidding.) (Yes, I am punny sometimes.)

Our Heroine, Lacey McHenry, is a scientist! Woot! Well, not actually, but she is a female trained in life sciences.

Action, explosions and people creeping their way into dark tunnels: this book had it in spades, especially as the end got rolling. I'd love to see parts of this filmed.

Our Hero - Dr Cameron Reinhardt - that's Dr Reinhardt to you and me - is a likable guy, (although I have mixed feelings about his Tragic Past). I did like how the military part of his background was used to elevate his competence without making him into G.I. Joe, Super Special Forces Ninja Ranger. (I do believe that there are a couple science-minded guys out there who could rise to high levels in their branch of research AND still be deadly ninja rangers after a 10 year break...but no more than a couple. Cameron was much more realistically portrayed.

Connected to this: The camaraderie between Cam and Rudy worked well for me.

The writing itself was well-crafted - while there weren't any parts that I re-read for the joy of the language itself, nor were there passages that I had to go through twice, scratching my head and muttering what did that mean? (Suspense and misdirecting the reader as part of the plot is okay. Confusing the reader because of poor sentence or paragraph structure is not okay.) While I would have liked language that was a bit less prosaic, less work-man, that's an individual taste thing, and it would have pushed the book out of its genre.

Aliens (the awakened Nephilim) were cool. Okay, in my head, they looked a great deal like Giger's Aliens, but still, they were cool.

Things that worked less well for me:

Despite the relatively active beginning (the first line, paragraph, and page were all solid as far as 'hook' went) it seemed to take forever for the story to get rolling. The introduction of the scientists and their work wasn't presented in a terribly interesting fashion and was made worse, I think, by the quick establishment of the 'bad guy' Swain. Perhaps some hesitation before he started threatening Cam would have helped.

Connected to this, I would have liked to have seen more of the other scientists and their personalities. I think that if the characters could have been divided into 'good guys' (or 'pov characters') and 'bad guys' AND 'other people whose part hasn't been established yet and might be good or bad but we don't know yet' that it would have helped draw me more into the book early on.

Which brings me to one of my major beefs with the characterization in the book - the relatively flat, simplistic and somewhat hostile depiction of nearly all the 'extras' among the scientists. The caricature of the scientists as being bitterly anti-Scriptural and bigoted towards Christians has not been my experience. (Yes, there are those individuals out there. And scientists have their share of egotists, and egotists tend to run their mouths and run people down.) The failure to make mention of any sort of spiritual leaning among any of the other scientists was a fault in the book, I think.

Connected to that, I'm not really crazy about the 'Christian as Lone Gunslinger' (meaning Shane, not X-File's Lone Gunmen) motif. (I'll go more into this when I talk about my take on the Christian elements of the story in a future post.)

Which brings me to the characterization of Cameron - I had mixed feelings about his Tragic Special Ops PTSD-Inducing Past. Especially with the child that died wrapt up into it. On the one hand, it worked because it helped justify Cameron's intellectual, overly-thinky decision processes. On the other hand, it made this reader aware that the author was female, writing a male character. Not so good.

A lot of the story focused on the glamorous nature of the bad guys - how pretty/handsome/well preserved they were, the cost of their clothes, the six-inch heels on the head bad gal. It gave me two impressions - firstly, it made all the characters seem overly concerned about surface appearances, and secondly, it was another form of stereotyping - rich beautiful people are evil.

In fact, to me, the main characters, even the 'good guys' seemed to be overly self-focused in their struggles and especially during the final sequences - bystanders, innocent or not, fall mangled and dead and are ignored in a manner more typical of the most mindless Hollywood violence. Even when our heroes are shown trying to save people, the attempted rescue happens 'off-screen' and then the story goes back, 'in real time', as our heroes run away.

Finally, I would have liked to have seen more actual science being performed. Testing, perhaps. Experimental design discussion. Heck, even feeding parameters of the frogs. (More on this when I talk about the book and science fiction.)

So. That's about all I had to say on the book structure, plot, etc. In my next two posts I intend to talk about science/science-fiction aspects, and then about the Christian aspects of the work.

The fine print:

Featured book, The Enclave -

Karen Hancock’s Web site -
Karen Hancock’s blog -

Other CSFFBT Participants’ Links:

Brandon Barr
Jennifer Bogart
Keanan Brand
Grace Bridges
Melissa Carswell
Valerie Comer
Amy Cruson
CSFF Blog Tour
Stacey Dale
D. G. D. Davidson
Janey DeMeo
Jeff Draper
Emmalyn Edwards
April Erwin
Karina Fabian
Beth Goddard
Todd Michael Greene
Heather R. Hunt
Becky Jesse
Cris Jesse
Carol Keen
Krystine Kercher
Dawn King
Mike Lynch
Melissa Meeks
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Eve Nielsen
John W. Otte
Steve Rice
Crista Richey
James Somers
Speculative Faith
Rachel Starr Thomson
Steve Trower
Fred Warren
Elizabeth Williams


Jason said...

Good intro to the book. I did an interview with Karen, and she touches on some of the issues you bring up, so you may want to check it out. Glad to have you on the tour!

Anne said...

Jason -

Woot! First comment on a blog tour post! Yah!


Thanks for stopping by - I will certainly check out your post - I'm trying to finish up the second day post so it will be a bit.

Again, thanks for commenting!

Fred Warren said...

Wow, superb review, Elizabeth, and you're not through yet! You noticed several things that bugged me on a subconscious level but I hadn't quite put my finger on yet, like the 'beautiful evil people' stereotype. Looking forward to Days 2 & 3.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

Fred said it. What an excellent review. You were so thorough, so interactive with the work.

Couple things--since I'm not a sci fi fan, the science was just perfect for me. Any more, and I would probably have been skipping sections.

Also I didn't think the book started slowly. A couple others said it took them a few chapters. That surprised me.

The failure to make mention of any sort of spiritual leaning among any of the other scientists was a fault in the book, I think. This didn't strike me as off because the scientists in this research facility were hand-picked by Swain.

Still, I really enjoyed reading what you had to say, Elizabeth.


Rachel Starr Thomson said...

Good analysis! I agree with Becky that the scientists being the way they were made sense considering that Swain picked them all -- but I'd extend that to say that's why so many of them were fixated on appearance. Swain was fixated on physical "perfection," hence the whole focus on his institution.

Beth Goddard said...

Regarding "the rich beautiful people are evil" I think that was part of showing us that these are the type of people who would clone others in order to better preserve their bodies --it makes perfect sense to me that these people are also superficial in the extreme. This isn't necessarily scientist stereotyping, but "typing" of those who are clearly only interested in themselves and living forever in beautiful bodies. :)

Anne said...

Fred - Thanks for stopping by with encouragement! I'm glad the post worked for you.

Becky -

Very good point about the scientists being picked by Swain (although this makes Cam *really* stand out, and makes me wonder what Swain was thinking) - I mentioned this in my last post. And what is my cuppa might not work for everyone - I agree that more science might not have worked for everyone.

Rachel -

I follow what you say about Swain and his biases...but that nags at me for a different reason, because science - especially commerical science - is such a meritocracy, so driven by results. (Okay, so I'm a hair biased here, too!) It doesn't make sense for a successful researcher (who did accomplish so much, even if it was horrible things) to be operating under a serious handicap like that.

huh. I must think on this more.

Beth -

I think you've put a finger on the basic issue - for the people who wanted to be cloned (and 'forever young') at least. I'm still chewing over the scientists with their 'surface only' googles.

Thank you all for stopping by and commenting!