Harper tried to collect his thoughts. “We are all aware, I think, sir, of the military uses to which dolphins have been put in Vietnam…indeed, the common dolphin has proved most effective in groups. But the killer works at maximum efficiency alone, and we believe it to be an anti-personnel weapon of far more formidable force…to begin with, since it work alone this means that a more complex schedule of training can be instituted. A killer can be taught, for instance, to attack all but a certain colour of diving-suit. Furthermore, the killer is, in nature, such a formidable creature that there is no need for any armaments – bayonets, gas guns and such. Thus the killer needs no maintenance, no re-loading. In short, once it has been trained and released, a single killer is capable of doing the job done in Vietnam by whole schools of dolphins more efficiently, with less fuss and with very much less cost.”
Well, best laid plans and all that…
I actually read this book in late August. Only now, in December, am I finally finishing my review. So much for that Labor Day posting I thought I’d have.
Anyway, I am here to tell you about my latest foray into the realm of killer critter novels. Once again, this came recommended in the AYCYAS! comments. From the same person that pointed me to Gila!, in fact. Will I be in their debt twice over? And why the hell did this take so long to write? Read on…
A small group of scientific researchers and cold weather survival experts are trapped on an ice floe when their plane goes down in the Arctic. As if this wasn’t bad enough, they soon find themselves under attack by a pod of orcas, led by a large male who’s been trained by the government to be the ultimate maritime weapon. Will they freeze to death before the orcas kill them…or can any of them possibly escape?
Today’s selection comes to us from the pen of Peter Tonkin. As was the case with Gila!, this is the author’s first novel, and an outlier from their regular writings. Mr. Tonkin’s written a lot of novels which appear to be high seas adventures with some survival elements as well, which does not surprise me as the survival aspect is very much present in Killer. He is from Ulster, England, and after a few novels between 1979 and 1989, he’s been regularly releasing books, mostly in the aforementioned oceanic adventure genre, as well as a series of Victorian mysteries.
First off, as you might imagine from the premise, we have only a handful of characters to worry about. They are all sketched out well enough to be actual characters; of course, this isn’t particularly difficult as they’re all familiar types. Kate Warren is a competent, intelligent, but tough female scientist who is still a woman at heart. (Yes, another scientist named Kate as our protagonist!) Unlike Gila!, where that Kate’s field tied into the plot, Kate is a botanist, which has nothing at all to do with the plot. Unless orcas were declared plants and I somehow missed that meeting. Dr. C. J. Warren, her father, is your scatter-brained but brilliant scientist, who tends to be too busy to pay attention to his daughter, though as we see he does love her dearly.
Colin Ross is a premiere cold-weather survival expert chosen to lead the exposition; he has a secret that saves his ass more than once (you’ll catch it early if you’re paying attention). An early meet-cute pegs him as the potential love interest. He also has a dark past, a fatal incident that another survival expert named Simon Quick, holds him responsible for. Why yes, he too is in this party. Good one, dad! As you can imagine, they’ll be arguing a lot throughout the book and regularly butting heads. Literally at one point. Simon will also be the one that loses it during their experience. He doesn’t quite go to Dr. Smith levels of insane sabotage, but not for lack of trying. He also Ahabs it up something fierce at one point.
Job is Ross’ partner and friend, and also our Token Native Who Still Believes in the Old Ways. Admittedly, he does have regular conflicts between those and his Christian upbringing, but it’s not particularly gripping stuff. Hence lines like, “It is the Knucklebones of Sedna. May God protect us now.” You shouldn’t need a hint to figure out which one wins out in the end. Rounding out the group is Hiram Preston, the co-pilot of their plane, who has “First Victim” stamped all over him.
So, our little group ends up stranded on a large hunk of ice in the Arctic Ocean following the crash of their plane. They’re already going to be in a struggle for survival in their harsh environment, since they don’t have any long-range radios or anything like that; and they’re out in the middle of nowhere, with the expectation of being out there for some time. Needless to say, things soon get worse when they are besieged by a killer whale and his adopted herd. Why would they do this? Get this: the government was trying to train orcas to be weapons of war! Can you believe it? Where do they get their ideas?
Okay, to be fair, this would not have been nearly as prevalent in the media of the late 1970s as it is today. This whole thing was obviously inspired by the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program. Anyway, there’s a nifty little time line of supposed incidents regarding them trying to train dolphins for this purpose. How do I know it’s made up? Well, such programs do train dolphins for things like recon and mine location. I’ve yet to hear of them being trained to kill people with bayonets strapped to their snouts and gas guns.
How would gas guns even work? They swim up to a boat, start spyhopping en masse and then the presumably radio-controlled guns are activated?
I now have an idea for a movie about this program, except the dolphins are psychic so they can activate their guns themselves. We’ll make sure it’s nice and gory by including the bayonets, and maybe it’s some sort of experimental flesh-melting gas in the guns. Someone get me a budget!
Back to the book, Killer (surprise!) manages to get loose and soon runs into a pod of other orcas. Being so much larger than other orcas, he easily takes control of the pod and has his choice of the females. Killer seems perfectly content being an ordinary orca, not really thinking about his past life as a living weapon. Until he comes across our stranded band, and his training kicks in. Naturally, the other orcas follow suit, and before long they’re banging the hell out of that ice floe, seeking to break it apart and get to the people atop it. When they’re not screwing around near the water on their own, that is. Which only happens twice. Once due to someone’s curiosity leading to them nearly losing their glasses, which I’m sure Lyz can sympathize with1. We then get a regular pattern of the group dealing with the cold and limited supplies, and then with the orcas coming for them yet again. The only real detour is when Colin shares his tragic past. While this does bring the story to a screeching halt, it is a harrowing piece to read and only takes up 15 of the book’s 244 pages.
All right, let’s take a look at the science. There isn’t a lot, as this is mainly survival horror. What’s present mostly comes up in the prelude, when we get an exposition dump courtesy of Commander Harper, he of the quote at the beginning, who is trying to sell the project to a navy admiral. He mentions their having seven representatives of the genus Delphinidae, which are the oceanic dolphins. Well, right off the bat, that’s a family, not a genus. He then lists the animals. While the common and bottlenose dolphins, as well as the pilot whale and orca, are members of that particular family, the narwhal and the beluga are the sole members of family Monodontidae, while the bottlenose whale’s family is Ziphiidae, the beaked whales. The lengths presented for each are pretty much on the mark, although he goes slightly large on the bottlenose whale.
Unsurprisingly, our titular beastie is rather larger than the record we have for an orca. At 39 feet 8.5 inches (just over 12 meters), he’s about 8 feet (nearly 2.5 meters) longer than the established record of 32 feet (9.76 meters), but he is said to weigh “in excess of seven tons,” which makes it sound lighter than the record holder’s weight of 10 short tons, or just over 9 metric tons. I guess “in excess of” means “over half again the comparative weight” in this case. To his credit, Tonkin does note that Killer’s 10 feet longer than average, the implication being that a special diet fed to him since calfhood is responsible. This is then pissed away when it’s claimed similarly-sized orcas have been seen in the wild. If that’s the case, then why did you bother with this “carefully selected diet,” which no doubt cost a pretty penny? If they get that big naturally, why experiment at all in this manner? What if it hadn’t worked? Then what, bright boys? Send out your stunted pygmy orca to terrorize the seas?
I now have another movie idea…
At the opposite end of the spectrum, I got to research Inuit mythology, which is something I’d never taken a look at before. This was a pleasant bonus, as I love mythologies. The various deities and stories mentioned by Job in the book pretty much check out, with some spelling variations. Interestingly, at one point he thanks Hiko, the ice. This doesn’t appear to be an actual deity; “hiko” is a word meaning “ice” in Inuit, though. Maybe this is kind of an animism thing? He also thanks “Nipello the rain,” which I cannot find any reference for. Maybe that’s the word for rain. Job gives us a pretty nifty story regarding the creation of various sea creatures at one point. Yes, orcas being one of said creatures.
All right, time for the highlight of the book, and the reason I had to read this: The walrus herd. To his credit, the author gives us what sounds like a reasonable explanation for why hundreds of walruses suddenly come onto the scene. Ultimately, though, who cares? The stage is set for a lights-out, no-holds-barred, three-way death match: walruses versus orcas versus humans! The walruses arrive, the orcas start munching them, and those that aren’t engaged in battle start throwing themselves on the floe in a bid for safety, which leads the characters to start killing them in droves before their weight breaks up their sanctuary.
I have to admit to an internal conflict here: a lot of walruses (and a few orcas) die, which isn’t something I particularly enjoy; but damn is it violent and gory. Walruses are chomped, ripped, drowned, and shot; orcas are impaled, disemboweled, and also shot. It’s all deadly serious, no jokes or light moments; but come on! How can you not love the fact that hundreds of walruses just show up so we can have this outrageous set-piece? It reminds me of the big difference in accidental bad movies and purposefully bad ones. If this was written as an over-the-top tour-de-farce, so to speak, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as it is here, presented straight.
The gore is not limited to that one scene, although it’s probably the most full of it. The people who meet their end invariably do so with gouts of blood and severing of parts and what have you. Obviously this can only come up so many times, what with half a dozen potential victims. That probably makes them stand out more, the sudden dramatic explosions of grue. It’s a matter of quality, of a sort, over quantity. Unlike my previous foray, Killer does not have any sex at all. And well it shouldn’t. I’m sure we’ve all seen movies where people get it on at the most ridiculous times. There is one kiss, and it gets broken up quite quickly. Constant threat of messy death, you understand.
I have to say, though, that I think my favorite moment comes near the end, and it involves Killer, his mate, and one of the characters. It is easily the most ridiculous moment in the novel. While this means it sticks out like a sore thumb, it’s too incredible to resent. I’m saying no more about it; you’ll have to read it for yourself to find out.
The bottom line:
And read it you should. I went in expecting something of a kind with Gila! It was not like that at all, but what I got was definitely a compelling read, with horror, tension, blood and guts, and more. While overall Gila! was more goofy fun, I think Killer would have more widespread appeal due to it being a serious bit of survival horror, and also being better-written. More people will be open to that than a book that comes off as a precursor to things like Big Ass Spider! and the Megashark vs. series. Sad but true, eh? Be advised that this is not nearly as quick a book to get through as Gila! My copy had pretty small print, and I’d say it was about twice as long a read. Like Gila! this is a technically sound book. I couldn’t find any glaring errors in punctuation or spelling. Man, that’s nice. It also uses the word “precipitated” in a manner I’ve not seen before. It’s not incorrect per my dictionary, just unusual. Maybe it’s a British thing2. Like how the word “color” is misspelled in that opening quote3.
So, with that said, I’m sure you’re wondering why it took me so long to write a piece for a book I genuinely enjoyed, enough that I lament the author never returning to this sort of story. Well, I found it quite hard to write about a legitimately good book. I wanted to tell you all about it, and encourage you to find it for yourselves, but the words just did not seem to come.
This may mean I watch and write about way too many bad movies, which the previous book had much more in common with. I wasn’t sure at first this was the case, because in past fest write-ups I’ve had no trouble going on at length about movies I absolutely love, like Super Inframan or Seventh Curse. However, movies like that aren’t what most people would consider a traditionally good movie. They’re fantastic, in my opinion, but I can write about the insane goings-on and crazy monsters and my constant delight with people in rubber suits running around stomping cities or kung-fu fighting. Now, this may not be a hard, fast rule; I believe I’d have no problem pontificating on a truly great film like Gojira or Jaws. Maybe this will be a book-only thing. According to the conversation I had with Lyz, it’s not just me that’s encountered this. In fact, she had three principles of reviewing that make a lot of sense, and which I should take to heart for the future. I suppose I’ll see how things go with the next book. It’s lined up already, and will be my first personal choice, rather than recommended by someone. The cover art and description both make me think I’ll not have the same problem I did this time…
1Must you mock my infirmity!?
2It’s a perfectly cromulent word.
3Yyyeah… You do NOT want to start me on the subject of who, exactly, is doing the misspelling…