Sunday, June 5, 2011

An Airport Novel Takes Off: The Eye of Ra by Michael Asher

*Spoilers all over the shop*
I found The Eye of Ra in the library at work. At first glance, I pegged it as the kind of history-themed thriller that has been clogging bookshelves since the success of The Da Vince Code. In fact, it was published in the late 90’s (most of the action takes place in 1995), before the Dan Brown effect made centuries-long conspiracies, Templars, and famous stuff from history necessary for thriller plots. In fact, this book takes its cues more from Indiana Jones as well as a bunch of much stranger sources, such as the work of Erich von Daniken. So, yeah, there’s going to be some ‘ancient astronaut’ theories bandied round before the sun sets behind the pyramids in this one.

Against my better judgement, I was immediately sucked in by a sort of prologue in which we learn that Brit colonial-era heroes and cultural thieves Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter found something freaky in King Tut’s tomb back in 1922. Ah, the swirl of the sands, the Valley of the Kings, the sweaty Arab workers, the pith helmets… I was hooked. I had to read on.
So. Our hero is Omar Ross, who is half English and half Egyptian. He was raised by the Hawazim, a Bedouin tribe who live in the Egyptian desert. Allright, so it’s a standard trope to have the hero have a background/understanding of some other culture that the author is interested in. Even Steven Seagal is fond of that one. But the trope is used sensitively for the most part, being a major part of the plot and not just another reason that the hero is a badass. And considering that the author lived with the Hawazim for several years in real-life, becoming disillusioned with life in the privileged west (though not too disillusioned, I notice, to quit the nomad life and buy a nice house in Nairobi), the whole ‘noble savage’ routine is not laid on too thick. I mean, the Hawazim are portrayed as loyal and ingenious at living in the desert. But the harsh realities of their lives, the closedness and suspicion of their society, and their sometimes brutal sense of ‘survival of the fittest’ are not glossed over.
In any case, at least Ross is a million miles away from Jerry Langdon, the tweed-wearing prick from the Dan Brown books who strolls around campus being adored by all and sundry (when he’s not working out or being captain of the swim team, that is). How I hated him, and all cardboard Mary-Stu protagonists who are brilliant at everything. Instead, Ross is one of those bitter, misunderstood and slightly misanthropic genius-type protagonists. When we first meet him, he’s being disparaged by a crowd of Egyptologists during a lecture in London. In fairness, I’d probably be booing too, as Ross (described on the back copy as a ‘maverick archaeologist', which is my new favourite term) is espousing his theory that the pyramids are in fact far older that currently believed, and that ancient Egyptian civilization must have had a hand from somewhere else. Uh oh- just a few pages in, and I can tell that this Maverick Archaeologist has been taking his cues from Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls, and not any of the earlier, better Indiana Jones movies.
The ‘ancient astronaut’ stuff was pretty much popularised by a crazy Swiss hotelier called Von Daniken back in the 70’s, and yeah, I first read about him because of Colin Wilson. He claimed that various historical mysteries could best be explained by the intervention of aliens. Clearly, ancient and primitive societies could not have built things as awesome of the pyramids. They must have had help. There’s a bunch of other ideas in there too, but that’s the crux of it. Despite having most of his claims punctured years ago, he’s still out there making money from his ideas. Don’t help him! (My copy of his Return of the Gods was bought in a second-hand bookshop in New Orleans, for which I believe he received absolutely nothing). In any case, the ancient astronaut theory turns up in popular culture from time to time, probably climaxing with the aforementioned Spielberg/Lucas turkey. I also recall an episode of The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest where aliens turn out to be responsible for the statues of Easter Island- a typical Von Daniken claim.
Anyway. Soon after being laughed out of the British Museum (making him a spiritual successor to Professor Challenger, too), Ross gets a frenzied call from his old mentor Cranwell in Egypt. Ross freaks out, and I add another point on my Da Vinci Code-meter. Almost all DVC style thrillers get the plot started with a mysterious death. Sure enough, by the time Ross quits his job at the Museum (f*ck you, f*ck you, f*ck you, you’re cool, f*ck you) and gets to Cairo, Cranwell is lying cold outside the pyramids.
The police arrive, and in charge of the investigation is my favourite character, Captain Hammoudi. Hammoudi’s a Copt, a Christian from Southern Egypt, and he’s a bruiser. Though he remains Ross’s nemesis for most of the story, his character is given a lot more attention that standard villains often recieve. He’s worked his way up to his position by being good, if brutal, at his job, despite the racism he experiences. He’s a proud Egyptian who serves his country and wants what’s best for it. We eventually find out that he’s being manipulated by forces he doesn’t even understand, but he’s smart enough to eventually figure out that something stinks. In terms of character archetypes, he’s somewhere between a respectable adversary and a villain-who-sees-the-error-of-his-ways (eventually). The only thing that’s stupid about him is that he uses a LOT of suspiciously America-sounding phrases and sentence construction for an Egyptian, especially towards the end of the book.
After noting the strange attitude of Hammoudi and the Egyptian police towards Cranwell’s death, Ross then begins hooking up with old contacts in Egypt to figure out what’s going on. The guy hated England anyway and to be honest he can barely hide his glee at being dragged back, even for the death of a close friend! This bit of the book goes on for a while- Ross visits a lot of people who talk at him about archaeology. Compared to some of these books, there’s actually a lot of interesting historical information. The infodumping, however, is sometimes done a little clumsily. Several times, characters have to tell Ross things about famous Egyptian archaeological stories that even I know. Well, I guess that’s why he’s a Maverick Archaeologist. The basic stuff just isn’t Maverick enough. Anyway, it’s all interesting stuff nonetheless, including the ‘curse’ on Carnarvon’s team, his mysterious and spooky death, and even some info on the famous rogue pharaoh Akhenaton, who did away with the familiar gods and tried to establish a new religion centred on one single god.
Some more stuff happens, some things blow up, people die, and Ross realises two things: one, there’s a conspiracy afoot, and everyone from the museum committees to the police force are in on it, and two, that he’s got some kind of psychic power, probably as a result of his Hawazim blood. Well, it was the 90’s. Between the noble desert people with psychic powers and the aliens-with-a-message-for-humanity subplot that’s brewing, who wants to bet that things are going to go all New Age before the climax? Oh, and Ross, being a brooding sort of chap, spends quite a lot of time staring at the Nile in the evenings.
And then the author sticks in something that’s pretty non-standard for these things. Ross and some girl he’s picked up have to leave Cairo until the heat’s off, so they ride out into the dunes on a motorbike (oh yeah, Ross’s- and the author’s- passion for motorbikes provides a little eye-rolling during the first chapter) and crash with his wise desert-dwelling relatives. So we get a few chapters that include lots of detail about what its like to be amongst these people. Not only is it actually quite interesting, but it does eventually tie into the myriad sub-plots that we’ve picked up by now. To whit- there’s the legend of a mysterious oasis (or lost city in some versions of the tale) called Zerzura. There’s a bunch of people throughout history who have come to strange ends searching for it, especially one Orde Wingate, a very strange guy who I’d never heard of but enjoyed researching. And there seems to be any number of possibilities for who is responsible for the conspiracy, or exactly what they’re trying to achieve: we get mentions of MI6, the Majestic 12 (though Asher calls them Majesty 12), and an organization called the Eye of Ra. And just to stuff in some more phenomena (did I mention the psychic bit?), there are mentions of both Area 51 and Roswell, though Asher seems to be unsure as to which one was the site of a supposed crash and which one is where evidence gets taken.
Eventually Ross and his girl get their act together, and head into the desert to find Zerzura. Now, maybe I haven’t mentioned it yet, but despite some oddities, Asher is actually a damn good writer. His favourite thing to write about is clearly the desert, and the characters' trip into madness across the dunes contains some truly shining bits of writing. They start having hallucinations, and things get really weird, climaxing with Ross meeting an alien who appears as his dead mother (shades of Contact…I think this trope is knows as A Form You Are Comfortable With, and was nicely parodied by South Park in the episode Cancelled).
Ross follows the alien underground, where he discovers that Zerzura is actually… (drumroll) an ancient spaceship. This scene is actually pretty cool despite the New Age-ness and the stupid plotline that a thousand-year plan had been setup basically so that Ross himself (the chosen one, of course. Hence the psychic. Blah.) would one day stumble across it and bring a message to all mankind. Oh, there those aliens go again, giving all their wisdom to one Maverick Archaeologist, crazy Midwesterner or Brazillian farmer, and then leaving him with no evidence whatsoever. This scene reminds me of the climax from Total Recall, if it was soundtracked by music from the second part of Hybrid Heaven on the N64.
I expected the novel to wrap up on this note, but instead it continues in a rather strange direction. Ross and his girl are found in the desert, and various members of the conspiracy keep them in a hospital/prison for a while. Some characters who appeared in the novel earlier return in a more sinister role, including one Rabjohn, who I knew was evil because he’s basically Sallah from Raiders of the Lost Arc. Then there’s a very weird bit when Hammoudi reappears, and quite logically persuades Ross (and the reader) that all this alien-conspiracy stuff is nonsense, and that he hallucinated while dying of thirst in the desert. It’s quite convincing, and about as confusing as a similar scene in Total Recall. Basically, in both scenes, the villain explains how ridiculous the plot is! I felt as though Asher had possibly written himself into a corner here. How was he going to get me to believe all that nonsense again? What direction is the novel really going?
By this stage, I felt as though Asher had almost introduced more disparate elements into the plot than he knew what to do with. During the last chapters, there are last-minute revelations, but the nature (and reality) of the conspiracy remains vague, especially the relations between the various organisations mentioned above. Actually, I felt that this made it quite effective as a shadowy and mysterious organisation. We never really come too close to finding out who really runs the show, or how far it goes (it’s certainly an international thing).
The Eye of Ra is so full of oddities and interest, and shot through with decent writing and the author’s personal interests, that I feel it transcends the limitations of its genre. There’s absolutely no reason why an exciting adventure story can’t be involving and intellectually stimulating, and this book proves that as much as classics like Flashman, The Lost World, and Raiders of the Lost Arc.

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