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Bookends: The Tale of the Man Who Knew Nothing September 18, 2011

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.

Bookends: The Tale of the Man Who Knew Nothing

By Dan Davidson

September 14, 2011

– 933 words –

The tale of the man who has no memory has always been one of my favorites, beginning many years ago with a spy thriller called The Mask of Glass, by a minor writer named Holly Roth. The beat known current example of this theme has probably been Robert Ludlum’s novels about Jason Bourne. With some alterations, the three Matt Damon movies stretched out the story of the first book into a successful franchise.

These individuals always find themselves dumped into situations that put them at risk. A lot of the fun in these plots is in watching them find out who they are, what their own capabilities are, and how they got to be where they are.

Oddly enough that is exactly the situation we are in when we meet the central character of Cowboys and Aliens. Jake Lonergan wakes up in the middle of the desert with a wound in his side and no idea who he is. In short order he is accosted by a trio of white scalp hunters who decide that he must be a fugitive and that they will play bounty hunter.

Their mistake. Jake hardly breaks a sweat putting them down. He appropriates their weapons, clothing and cash, takes the horse that suits him the best, and heads towards the nearest town, which is ironically called Absolution. As Jake learns more and more about who he is  – or was – absolution is exactly what he ends up seeking.

He learns his name when the town’s sheriff recognizes him from a wanted poster and manages, with the aid of some luck, to arrest him. He learns more when the local rich rancher, Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde, comes after him to regain the gold that Jake had apparently stolen from the train he had shipped it on.

This is all progressing like a fairly standard western novel up until page 80, which is when the aliens come to town. The aliens eventually turn to be somewhat reptilian creatures with great speed and strength, as well as sharp teeth and claws, but we meet them first in their individual fliers, which fire actinic blue rays that set things on fire, and shoot out the alien equivalent of lassos, which scoop up townspeople and take them away to God only knows where. Among the scoopees are the sheriff and Dolarhyde’s delinquent son.

This is when Jake learns that the strange metallic cuff on one of his arms is a weapon. Activated by the presence of danger, it fires those same rays to save him and down one of the alien craft, driving the others off and leaving one of the creatures to escape on foot.

With half the town reduced to cinders and a good many of its citizens captured, Dolarhyde decides that a rescue mission matters more than his revenge on Jake, especially since Jake has the only weapon that is really worth anything in this fight. Joined by some of the remaining able bodied men and the strange gun-totting woman named Ella, the pair set off to find the place where the aliens are hiding, intending to rescue the captured townsfolk.

Ella, who is a very mysterious character, insists that Jake knows where they have to go, if only he can get his memory back. Jake’s not sure he wants it back, because the more he learns about the man he used to be, the less he wants to know, but his memories of the woman named Alice, and the possibility that she might be a captive, spurs him on.

From there on we have a quest, a number of battles large and small, more than a bit of self-revelation and re-evaluation and finally, a bit of that absolution that both Jake and Dolarhyde need.

This book is a novelization of a script for the film that starred Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde. I might not have picked it up except that the author, Joan D. Vinge, wrote some of the best ever Star Trek novels and was a Hugo award winner for her Snow Queen novels some years back and has written a number of other original books that I enjoyed. I hadn’t heard from her in years, and when she wrote an essay about how this book came to be I was intrigued by what she had to say about the process.

In a sense this book was an absolution for her too, as she hasn’t been able to write as a result of a “closed-head concussion” she suffered in an auto accident a decade ago. Her personal sense of self was almost as fractured as Jake’s.

“So in that way the car accident,” she wrote, “and what came after it, became for me a microcosm of what the individuals, and fractious factions, in Cowboys & Aliens were facing: They had to realize they were all part of a whole, pull themselves together and act like one, before they have any chance of overcoming their truly formidable foe.”

Novelizations are done from the original scripts, and often vary somewhat from the final edited version of the film. A good writer can get inside the heads of the characters, even in an action movie script, and turn out a book that does more than just blow things up.

Vinge chose to write about redemption, and did a pretty good job within the framework she had to work with. I’ll be interested to see the film someday, but I’ll bet the book is better.




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