"Cretaceous Sea," Will Hubbell

Pros: A passably interesting plot
Cons: Trite plot elements, obvious plot “twists”, problems depicting emotion, misogyny
Rating: 1 out of 5

First published 3/12/2003

“Cretaceous Sea,” by Will Hubbell, started out all right. It begins roughly 50 years in our future. A very wealthy man, his estranged and headstrong teenage daughter, and his vivacious fiancee have been invited to take part in a unique opportunity. For a whole lot of money, they can take a vacation in a place that’s guaranteed to be private and exclusive: the past. The Cretaceous Period, to be exact–a time of pristine landscapes and dinosaurs. They can even come back just minutes after they leave, guaranteeing that none of them will miss anything important in their lives.

There’s just one problem–pretty much everything they’ve been told is a lie. Except that bit about going back to the Cretaceous.

Peter Green, who has offered Mr. Greighton and his family this unique opportunity, has a hidden motive. He wants to secure Greighton as an investor so that he can do research on time travel–which, as he understands it, has some problems. In order to convince Greighton to agree to the “vacation” he had to allow Greighton’s daughter to come along, but he doesn’t want the sharp-tongued girl to ruin her father’s happy and receptive mood, so he hires paleontologist Rick Clements as a guide to keep her busy. There’s just one problem–Rick and Con (Constance) are far too curious for their own good. And they’re about to uncover far too many of Peter Green’s secrets for their own safety.

My Own Timeline

For about the first third to a half of this book, I thought it was okay. There were no huge, obvious flaws; it just wasn’t amazing. The characters were interesting, but not compelling. The setting was unusual, but not engrossing. The pacing was reasonable, but not perfect. In other words, it was okay–nothing special, but not bad. I was already anticipating a rating of three out of five.

Roughly halfway through the book I started liking it less and less. It started with a romantic scene that I could only describe as cheesy. Thus began a pattern–most of the emotionally-charged scenes come across as exaggerated, even silly. Part of the problem sprang from the fact that the author tended to tell us how characters felt rather than show it. Or he’d have them utter a melodramatic line or two and expect that to serve as emotion. Hubbell is at his best when he’s stolidly relating the interesting things the paleontologist uncovers on the planet, exploring dinosaurs and the environment. This material may not be emotional and riveting, but it rings true. The high emotions don’t. This is part of the reason why things seemed to change for the worse halfway through–because the second half of the book seriously ratchets up the tension and emotion.

What sets this change off all the more starkly is the fact that, because the emotions in the scenes don’t ring true, they fail to elicit appropriate emotions in the reader. This is a book full of crises and tragedies and triumphs–yet in only three places did it succeed in eliciting any sympathetic emotions in me, and those were brief and mild spots indeed.

As I read on, I found myself becoming more and more irritated with the book. About two-thirds of the way through I had to stop, put it down, and try to figure out why, because I was having a hard time reading any further. And that’s when I finally pieced together a pattern that really bothered me.

Men & Women

To put things in perspective for a moment, I don’t often notice or worry about gender inequality issues unless they’re blatant and glaring. I’ve had male friends point out gender problems in artistic works that went right past me.

Unless I’m forgetting some very minor character, there are exactly five female characters in this book. One is one of the main point-of-view characters: Con. Another is Sara, Greighton’s fiancee. Another is Con’s mother, Greighton’s ex-wife. Another is the woman who clinches the vacation deal with Greighton, Ann. The last is… well, I can’t explain her exactly because it would give a very late plot development away; suffice to say she’s a science fiction cliche that’s been around for a very long time.

Now, let’s go through the list briefly, not necessarily in order.

Sara is a grasping, arrogant air-head. (That’s really all you need to know about her.) Con is supposed to be smart and resourceful; she’s going to Harvard in the fall, after all, and we’re told over and over again how resourceful she is. But instead she has brief moments of resourcefulness buried in a load of childish dependence. Con’s mother is a bitter soul who only cares whether or not Con inherits all her father’s money. These three women have the emotional (and, often, intellectual) maturity of six-year-olds. Okay, so Con has brief forays into ten-year-old land. (Even when she did something smart I got the distinct impression the author was virtually patting her on the head and saying, “oh, look at how clever the little woman was!”)

Then let’s take Ann. On the surface she seems to make up for the others–she’s smart, resourceful. She’s a savvy businesswoman. She’s also on-screen for all of a few pages. She has the personality of cardboard. And while she’s supposedly doing smart things, she does things that (to me) look very risky and could have easily backfired on her (and, if you take the long view, did). That final woman that I don’t want to describe, as I said, is a soulless cliche who also has the personality of cardboard.

Now let’s compare them to the men. Mr. Greighton is a cliche of the self-centered rich guy. Peter Green is a dangerous, intelligent psychopath. The staff at the “resort” are all pretty resourceful, clever guys, from the cook, to the guy who used to run safari camps, to Green’s right-hand-man (Joe), to Rick. Hmm. Not looking so good here. But wait, it gets worse.

A large part of the book is taken up by two guys and Con trying to survive together under very adverse circumstances. The two guys spend the entire time coddling Con, talking down to her, and treating her like the aforementioned six-year-old. Oh, but wait, it gets even worse. This isn’t written up as a character flaw. This isn’t written up as them responding to the fact that she often behaves like a six-year-old (even though she’s supposed to be a clever almost-adult). This is written up as them being sweet and wonderful and CARING about her. Apparently it’s a good thing to treat women like children.

Did I mention that this book was actually published in 2002? I know, I had trouble believing it too.

Further Problems

There are plot developments toward the end that have been done so many times before in so many other books that I felt like I’d read them before.

[–BEGIN SPOILERS– Skip to the next paragraph if you plan to read this book] Toward the end, people from the far future come back in time to find out what the heck is going on. They call themselves Homo Perfectus and view the 21st century humans as little better than animals. They despise emotions, and don’t understand what “love” is. Okay, raise your hands if you’ve seen this plot at least 10 times before, right down to the Latin name for the new species of human. The presence of which, of course, makes no sense since the “future humans” don’t speak English or Latin any more, so presumably if they’re speaking in English for the benefit of the main characters, they’d translate their name for their species into English. Worse, after having the people from the future despise emotions so, the author throws in a line about them having “an angry discussion.” Sounds like emotion to me! [END SPOILERS]

Even worse, the several big “plot twists” aren’t. They’re all pretty darn predictable, and usually pretty frustrating too because you can see them coming 50-100 pages before the characters do.

[–BEGIN SPOILERS– Skip to the next paragraph if you plan to read this book] One of the big plot twists is that the characters end up in the Cretaceous Period right before the big ol’ asteroid is supposed to hit and wipe out the dinosaurs. Con finds a readout with odd alien numbers counting down in her quarters and shows it to Rick. Neither of them seems too worried about it, though, or figures out what it might mean until quite a while later. If I found a mysterious clock counting down I’d sure as hell worry about it! Also, the ending plot twist is that Con turns out to be her own famous ancestor, Constance Clements, who struck it rich a couple of centuries before Con is born. This was another one of those plot developments that I figured out about 50 to 100 pages earlier than I was supposed to. And frankly, if I’d really been on the ball I would have figured it out a lot earlier. [END SPOILERS]

The author also has a real imbalance of narrative and dialogue–he tells us many conversations through narrative that thus seem dry and uninteresting, where they might have had a little life if they’d been shown through dialogue.

In Short…

Please. I’m sure you can find a better novel to read than this train-wreck of a book. Even before I discovered the unsurprising plot twists, the trite ending, the attitude toward women, and the horribly cheesy emotional scenes, I would have only given it a 3. As it is, it’s barely worth the 1 I’m giving it.

Posted in Reviews

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