HUMANredux: Begginings by John C. Withwick

This book had a fascinating premise, but its execution sapped most of the life out of what could have been an intriguing alternate-history story. The plot structure, characters, and writing style left the novel feeling more like a prolonged summary than anything else, and the ending was the typical cliffhanger that resolved next to nothing and spent all of its time setting up the next book.

First, the basic plot: all of those folks on Ancient Aliens, as well as anyone who believes that lizard people secretly run the world, are right. In fact, a race of lizard-folk has been secretly plotting the destruction of the Earth, and the book picks up with an alien, N’tok, from a different species tipping the president of the U.S. off. This alien also has a device that can send a small number of people back in time to attempt to change the course of human history.

It wasn’t the most inspired start, although there was a great moment where the alien explained why his species wouldn’t help the humans: his people were Space-America, the lizards were Space-Russia, and Earth was Papua New Guiney. Nobody wanted to start a war over it.

The entire first half of the book covers N’tok’s efforts to train a group of gifted teenagers to go back in time without any of them knowing it. The actual selling point of the book, the time-traveling and alternate history, doesn’t arise until halfway through. The buildup just takes too long, and nothing really interesting happens in the book until the kids get zapped back to the past.

Second, the characters: there was one female character, a CIA agent and niece of the president, who I found problematic. She fit a lot of the negative stereotypes of successful women: insecure in her career because of her relationship to the president, divorced after her husband had an array of affairs, and desperate for one last chance at romance/a sperm donor. This certainly wasn’t intentional on the author’s part, but she was in the book long enough to rub me the wrong way.

The rest of the characters aren’t problematic, but they also aren’t that interesting. About all we ever learn about them is how they look and what kind of stock personality they qualify as. There is never really an instance where any of the characters face a dilemma that they really have to wrestle with outside of Atul, a Native American who is insistent on building up the B.C.E. Americas into the cradle of civilization, and even that isn’t much of a dilemma because everyone more or less agrees with him. When there is conflict, it gets resolved so quickly and cleanly that the characters never feel like they’re developing.

Third, there were a decent number of technical issues with the writing, but even without those the tone of the book wasn’t engaging. It felt like I was reading a summary in a history book more than I was a novel. The author employed a lot of time jumps, and most of those hit during what I considered to be the most interesting parts of the book.

For instance, the Roman Empire: the characters show up, make a big statement to get Julius Caesar to side with them, and then the book skips six months to a year ahead, just in time for a history-repeats-itself plotline to play out. All of the buildup to the new, advanced Roman society is dealt with in passing.

Alternate history is one of my favorite genres, but what I love about it is seeing how each little detail changes all of the others. The 1632 series by Eric Flint is a great example of this done right while still being light enough to make for easy reading.

But, in the novel currently being discussed, there’s neither the depth nor the sense of fun and adventure to really pull the reader in. Everything ends up being overly solemn and somewhat hokey, and it hits with about the same impact as a made-for-SyFy TV series that got cancelled halfway through the first season.

The book does have just enough in it to get a reader from the beginning to the end, so it is certainly better than some of the material floating around out there, and I did genuinely want to know what happened next. That said, it never gripped me, and most of the things I love about the alternate history genre were noticeably absent.

If you want to take a gander, you can pick up a copy of the book from Amazon here.

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