Book review: EarthCore by Scott Sigler

This book cannot decide whether it wants to be a near-future thriller, an action romp or science-fiction with a sprinkle of body horror.  At the end, it tries to be everything, but only half-heartedly, leaving much to be desired.  I found the book to be bland, formulaic, and forgettable.

In Utah, an old prospector named Sonny finds a deposit of platinum.  Having it tested, he learns that he found one of the purest deposits in the world.  Unfortunately for him, the metallurgist who performed the testing is working for one of the most ruthless bosses in the mining industry, Connell Kirkland.  Kirkland sends one of his external agents, the former NSA agent Kayla Meyers, to find Sonny and dig out some dirt on him, so that he can extort Sonny into selling the find to him relatively cheaply.  He manages to do just that, and he even ropes Sonny into working for him at the mining site for a year.

Sonny feels that there is something wrong with the mountain.  There is no animal life, and old archived newspaper clippings he researched point to disasters befalling all mining and caving explorations that came this way.  In addition, a strange ancient knife, which does not seem to belong to any known culture, had been found here.  The artifact is known to the anthropologist Veronica Reeves, who had been researching the same knives half a world away.  She flies over and threatens to shut down the mining exploration.  Kirkland makes a deal with her where she’d be allowed to enter the dig and research anything they find, so she and her adoptive father stay.

The dig proceeds in utmost secrecy, as the potential payoff would make Kirkland’s fledgling company one of the richest corporations in the world, and he fears that better-funded competitors would chase him out of the site.  However, Meyers, sensing that something big is going on, watches the camp from afar, trying to figure out what the fuss is all about.  And so, she sees when a handful of explorers, miners, security guards, Kirkland, and Reeves, descend down the newly dug shaft deep underground, in an effort to reach the motherlode.  She then witnesses as strange creatures explode from the shaft, brutally killing everyone on the surface, and destroying the entire camp.

Meyers realizes that this is her chance to have the discovery of a new intelligent species all for herself, as a bargaining chip to be readmitted to the NSA, and so she kills the only surviving witness, a security guard.  Unbeknownst to her, Sonny, who sensed the impending doom, escaped before the attack and the next morning he doubled back and witnessed the murder.  Sonny decides to stay and observe, while Meyers descends into the mine to hunt down the remaining survivors.

In the meantime, the underground survivors are slowly whittled down by accidents and the strange creatures.  They finally reach the motherlode, which turns out to be a spaceship.  Reeves reviews the cave paintings around the ship and determines that the octopus-like creatures are aliens who hid on earth eons ago, and slowly devolved into savages.  They are being kept alive by an army of servant robots, who have slowly taken over their decision making, and adhered to their top priority of remaining hidden.  This is why the creatures indiscriminately kill everything around the mountain.  As the survivors try to escape the cave, Reeves’ father is caught and chopped to pieces.  Reeves goes insane and decides to launch the aliens’ doomsday device to kill all of them.  Kirkland is down to only two security guards when Meyers finally catches up with them, with the intent to kill.  Time is running out, as the three must fight off Meyers and the murderous aliens, while trying to escape the mountain before it explodes.

EarthCore is the author’s first novel, written in 2001.  He has since revisited the material for a new, 2017 edition, which I read.  I don’t know what differences were made, but apparently, they weren’t enough to hide the very formulaic and rather dull plot.  In 2005, Blake Snyder published the highly influential book Save the Cat! where he explained the formula for successful blockbuster screenplays.  In 2018, the author Jessica Brody adapted Snyder’s book to novels, in her Save the Cat! Writes a Novel.  Neither book invented anything.  They summarized the prevailing trends and elements in narrative structures that writing workshops have taught for years, and which many blockbuster authors already used.  EarthCore is a very good example of such a narrative.

One of the book’s core elements is ostensibly Kirkland’s redemption arc.  As the Cat books found, the best redemption arc has a despicable character with a single redeeming quality.  Before the audience really hates the character, the protagonist can, for example, save a cat from a tree, to garner some sympathy and the audience’s interest in their redemption.  Kirkland is designed exactly in this way.  His redeeming quality is that his wife had died in a car accident, which left him a changed, cold, and ruthless man, who replaces his lost love with work obsession.  From there, he could slowly warm up to human emotion again, especially once he is around Reeves.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  Kirkland remains cold and calculating, and even when he takes charge to lead the others out of danger, he doesn’t feel any inner satisfaction.  He is just as unlikeable at the end as he was at the beginning, and I couldn’t care less about what happened to him.

Most of the other characters are just as one-dimensional.  We have the abrasive anthropologist whom even her father can’t force to be more diplomatic and friendly, security guards who are either professional killers or corrupt, a scientific genius whose personality is almost comically despicable, and Meyers, who is an insane, murderous psychopath.  The only two people who actually change in the novel are a duo of security guards who fall in love and drop their duties in order to save each other.  All these characters have one thing in common: they are all unlikeable, and I as a reader actually wanted to see them killed, rather than being worried for their survival.  There are a few bit players who seem sympathetic, but they spend so little time in the novel that I’m sure that if they were any more important, the author would show how much he disliked them as well.

Story-wise, the novel fares a little better.  The pacing is way off, with too much time spent on the first act, and the third act dragging to the extent where I felt exhausted just reading about the never-ending escape from dangers.  However, I really appreciated the author’s insights into geology, prospecting, and the mining industry.  I don’t know whether he had been correct, but the entire worldbuilding sounded very interesting and kept me reading through the otherwise slow slog of the first half of the book.  I also valued the fact that the author did not spend too much time obsessing about weaponry, even though so many bullets were spent.  I can imagine other authors making this a lesson on why every American should be armed to the teeth and describing every shooting instrument to greatest details.

Ultimately, however, the book falls flat due to its characters.  I could not sympathize with any of them, and their fate left me cold.  If anything, I was a little disappointed that some of the more unsympathetic characters didn’t get more graphic deaths.  Perhaps keeping the book within a single genre and focusing on some character development would have helped the novel, but as it stands, EarthCore’s appeal is only about the intricacies of prospecting and mining, while a bunch of people I don’t care about drop dead.

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