Terminator Salvation felt more like a weak music video than a movie, with a story that was hard to piece together. So it's a good thing the novelization is written by super-prolific author Alan Dean Foster, right? Spoilers ahead...
Titan Books, which published the book version of Terminator Salvation, kindly sent out a half dozen copies to some of io9's writers as well as some of our most prolific commenters and occasional posters. So how did the story of Marcus Wright's cyborg angst and John Connor's struggle with tourettes translate into book form? Here's what they thought.
Annalee Newitz, io9 editor
Chris Hsiang aka Grey Area, frequent commenter and regular book reviewer.
Hank Hu aka CrashedPC, regular commenter.
Josh Wimmer aka Moff, regular commenter and "Jive Tarkin" columnist
Alexis Brown aka EvlSushi, regular commenter, current intern and regular poster.
Charlie Jane Anders, io9 news editor and occasional leaver of the house.
So in order to maximize the value to you, the readers, we'll try and divide this review up into a few sections.
Does the novel make sense?
It definitely makes more sense than the movie, is the consensus. Maybe because Foster was working from a script that included a lot of scenes that were cut, or trimmed, for the final movie, there's a lot more explanation of what the heck is going on.
As in the movie, it's 2018, and the self-aware computer system Skynet has all but wiped out the human race. John Connor leads the last remnants of humanity in the fight against the machines, while struggling to save his own father, Kyle Reese. And meanwhile, a man named Marcus Wright wakes up years after being executed, and begins to suspect that he may no longer be human.
Says Hank, "The novel, even while reading like a grade-school primer for action movies, had a modicrum of sense. Being able to read someone's internal thought process is extremely satisfying. Connor is not a shouty loud madman like what I've heard about the movie, but he's just too damn emo at times."
The novel includes a lot more conversations between John Connor and his wife, Kate, about how the timeline may have changed. Connor has actual smart discussions about the supposed "off switch" and whether it's likely that Skynet would really have left such an easy backdoor in its systems. And the Connors talk a lot more about Kate's pregnancy and John's doubts about his ability to save people in this new altered timeline.
As Chris points out, Foster spends a lot of time explaining how Skynet's stronghold in San Francisco is so poorly guarded. "Foster tried to fill in as many plot holes as he could. His explanations for why there was very little security in San Francisco and why the HKs didn't bother Connor's base almost work."
And after the Connors encounter Marcus, there's a much more in-depth discussion of exactly who he might be, and what he represents. At one point, Kate explains exactly how that cyborg infrastructure works, and how it's all wired. This is a huge improvement over the movie, where they just sort of look at Marcus and grunt.
And yet, there are still some plot holes.
Grey Area observes:
The batshit insane sequence where Connor hacks a moto-terminator and rides it to San Francisco across the ruined Golden Gate Bridge was kinda cool but totally batshit insane. That wasn't actually in the movie was it?
I still don't understand why Marcus is like, the most advanced 'bot of them all. From what I can tell, he donated his body to science after being punished, capitally. If his brain is still the original organic one, why is he the most advanced one? Shouldn't he be like the beta stage prototype garbage bot that can barely formulate sentences. Instead he's the Incredible Hulk that can formulate complex sentences, albeit broody ones.
And why is John Connor so flippin' special anyway? We have yet to see him do much of anything to justify how important he is to the timeline. The machines seeme to have ultimate control of everything, right? And humans are scattered and living like rats. So, how is this a war and not a complete massacre?
Josh zeroes in on the ultimate plot hole:
And why is saving Kyle Reese so important? So that John Connor can send him back in time so that he gets born? Is he going to disappear Back to the Future–style if Kyle dies? Because I wasn't feeling the impending doom.
At the end of the book, there's no heart transplant. Instead, the characters just escape intact. (You can read the adaptation of the movie's actual ending on the Titan books website.) And then Foster throws in a weird hint that Star, the cute little orphan with the funny hat — may actually be a Terminator. Her eye glints redly... or is it just a trick of the light? We may never know.
How about the characters? Are they more fleshed out?
Definitely. Marcus Wright, in particular, benefits from the novel's ability to flesh out his inner life and give him a stronger story arc. As Alexis points out, the early scene where Marcus meets Serena Kogan and agrees to donate his body to her experiments is much stronger. The kiss between the two of them is described lovingly, although it's made clear it's not a loving kiss — it's a last act of violence from a violent man. And we get an running monologue summarizing Marcus' thoughts and his final struggles as the lethal injection wipes him out. His last thought is about the kiss with Serena, and how he could have done it better. As Alexis says, it's nice stuff.
Grey Area liked the way the novel reveals
the humanity of Marcus, and the whole deterministic fate thingy. A vicious thug becomes more human and sympathetic after becoming cyborged. It's as if Skynet, that notorious softie with its keen insight into human emotion, re-programs Marcus with a better soul. Neat idea, but as I stated before I cannot buy that the cold emotionless Skynet is occasionally Dr. Phil.
Honestly, I thought Marcus Wright was pretty cool. Never mind the fact that he knew himself that he was executed and now he's walking around, shrugging off attacks and saving children. He was much more of a sympathetic character than most of the Resistance. Or even surviving nomads. Perhaps he was meant to be the real star of the show?
Even more, Grey Area approves of the way the novel gives us
Connor's realization that he is as programmed as the machines he fights.He's been told since birth that he will become this great leader. He really has no choice and doesn't even seem to have any actual leadership qualities. Hell, his people follow him just because they've been told to.
One part I did like in particular: Marcus escaping the silo. The Resistance fighters just acted so dense, so naively, that I felt no sympathy for them. It does them no favors when Marcus was described so heroically and positively prior, and then now Barnes is taking potshots at him when he's strung up. I know they hate the machines and all, but jeez, it's like they didn't even bother trying to figure out how such a perfect melding of human and machine came about. "IT'S A TRAP" is essentially all they kept shrieking.
On the minus side, everybody hates Star the cute orphan, in the book as much as in the movie. And one character who gets fleshed out to ill effect is Virginia, the white-haired lady who takes Star under her wing in the movie. In the book, we learn way more about Virginia than we ever wanted, as she tells Star bedtime stories and sings lullabies to her.
How tongue-in-cheek is it?
The novel features some of the purplest, silliest prose Alan Dean Foster has ever committed to paper. You can't help but wonder if Foster, who's a great writer when he wants to be, wasn't mocking the whole story, or at least trying to lighten up the intentionally humorless film.
Grey Area picks out the following choice lines:
pg. 16 "Wright rose from the cot. Standing, he looked a lot taller, a lot bigger."
pg 35 " 'Jericho, come in!', Olsen's fingers tightened on his communicator.
Jericho didn't come in. The communicator's locked frequency was as silent as the grave. A bad simile, the general thought, especially considering his present subterranean location."
pg. 139 "She did not really know him yet, and she did not want him to see the unbridled gratitude that she knew must be suffusing her face."
And, from the very ending:
She tried to shrug but was unable to lift her shoulder.
"Any moment. His heart can't take it." Her eyes met the sergeant's, and she continued. "The Terminators have beat him up and history has worn him down."
Barnes tried to think of something to say. Of the right thing to say.
"It's going to be okay."
Hank's favorite line:
This resulted in even more bits and pieces flying off of the machine. This resulted in a termination of the pursuit.
Annalee picks out a few choice lines as well:
* * * When Dr. Serena Kogan (later to be the Face Of Skynet) first meets Marcus before he's killed, and turns into Bill Cosby:
"How are you?" she finally murmured.
In the troglodytic confines of the cell the query was at least as funny as the paramount punchline of a highly paid stand-up comedian.
* * * When Williams fights off would-be rapists, right before Marcus steps in to help:
That was just enough time for Williams to dart forward and slam the knucles of her closed fist into his throat . . . He dropped like the sack of shit he was.
* * * After Marcus escapes from the resistance camp, John Connor shows off his powers of perception:
He had barely made back into the woods when shapes rose sharply from bush to confront him and he found himself staring down the barrels of three rifles.
"Halt and identify yourself!" the noncom in charge barked.
"John Connor." What a pity, he mused halfheartedly, that he could not be someone else.
But he knew he was John Connor.
* * Marcus hooks up with Skynet in the machine complex - and we do mean "hooks up."
Revealed to his probing gaze was an intricate maze of glowing wiring, silent chips, and busy processing units. He stared at the lambent display, memorizing all that he could.
Finally he gave up and shoved his hands deeply into the electronic wonderland.
The initial contact caused him to spasm . . .
After reading through all these quotes, I can't help but feel that Foster was trying to lighten the tone a bit. And maybe sending up the story, just a tad.
The bottom line:
The consensus seems to be: The novel is held back by having to be an adaptation of such a nonsensical movie, but it's clear Alan Dean Foster was having fun writing it. And as a result, it's a pretty fun read. And if you've been sitting around wrestling with all the dozens of things that didn't make sense in the movie — and wondering exactly what was going through these people's heads as they were running around from action sequence to mopey slow-mo — then this novel may be of great value to you.