Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Post 1991 Claremont part 2

[Jason Powell continues to epilogue away. Three more after this one.]

Continuing a look at Claremont’s post-1991, non-X-Men work …

This week, the “High Frontier” trilogy.

Claremont wrote three sci-fi novels all set in the same universe that was – at one point – marketed by publisher Ace under the umbrella title “High Frontier.” The individual titles are:

FirstFlight (1987)
Grounded (1991)
Sundowner (1994)

It’s cheating a bit to include FirstFlight in this “post-1991” series, but what the hell. Grounded I guess technically shouldn’t count either, as I think it was released before Claremont’s last X-Men issue was published. Ah well.

This series is probably the very best demonstration of Claremont’s ability to create a fully-fleshed out fictional universe, something he wasn’t able to ever fully show off when writing within the Marvel Universe.

The world of “High Frontier” is marvelously well-realized in Claremont’s prose, each novel building consistently on earlier material, making it clear that even from page one of FirstFlight, Claremont had put a lot of work into developing a coherent milieu.

The timeframe in which the books take place is never explicitly spelled out, though most of the clues suggest sometime circa 2050 (which, of course, felt a lot further away then than it does now). The backstory for “High Frontier” involves the unexpected invention, well ahead of its time, of a practical means of faster-than-light travel, which has in turn led to radical upheavals in the space program. Claremont’s lead character is a female (naturally) pilot named Nicole Shea, whom we encounter just as she’s about to be given her first off-world mission.

FirstFlight is a straightforward adventure story detailing the increasingly surprising events of that mission (well, surprising if you don’t read any of the spoilers on the back cover or front-page teaser). X-Men fans will enjoy Claremont’s dedication in FirstFlight – “to Charley, Scott, Jean, Ororo, Logan, Peter, Kurt …”. And there are some Easter eggs (or, less charitably, just plain old duplicates of X-Men characters) amongst the novel’s cast. The Wolverine analogue, Ben Ciari, is particularly noteworthy. And there’s another familiar name dropped right in the opening chapter, when we learn who Nicole’s favorite musician is.

The book is a brisk 250 pages, and the story jumps quickly from one set-piece to the next. The tangled complexities that one expects from a Claremont story are mostly missing here – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. The prose is strong, albeit not nearly as solid as Claremont’s concurrent comic-book work was.

Grounded is something else. This one features a Claremont who seems very assured in the medium of prose, and he produces a much more characteristic piece here. His use of language is masterful, expertly exploiting the poetry inherent in both sci-fi and real-world technical jargon. The cast this time around is quite a bit more well-realized, and the storyline more layered and complex. Compared to the narrative straight-line of FirstFlight, the trajectory of Grounded is multi-vectored, even recursive at times. But the pay-off is there: an exciting, fully realized climax that incorporates every narrative thread, even those that seemed more like digressions at the time. A spectacular effort, this one is; the best of the three books.

(And as with any good speculative fiction, Grounded features some shrewd predictions about the world to come. Published in ’91, it gives us a universe of PortaComps – basically iPhones and Blackberries – and cars with built-in GPS trackers. There is even a direct reference to the Second Gulf War, which seemed like a perfunctory “Look, we’re in the future!” sort of detail when I read the book in 1991. Rereading it in 2010, I found it pretty darn striking.)

Sundowner ended up being the final volume of a trilogy, though I am not sure Claremont planned on stopping at three books initially. The story certainly leaves things open, but at the same time there is an “everything but the kitchen sink” quality to this novel that makes it feel suitably “grand finale”-ish. The major characters from FirstFlight that had been absent from the sequel return here, and the villain from Grounded is given a chance to be redeemed. The ending actually recalls that of Deadliest of the Species, basically leaving things open for the cast to engage in more adventures. Come to think of it, this is how his X-Men run ended as well: All three of these Claremont epics feature the cast in an aircraft, flying optimistically toward the future.

Overall, the ending of Sundowner feels a bit rushed to me, and I think Claremont kind of botches what should’ve been a really fantastic twist in the final chapter, because his writing is too opaque. Still, it is one eventful finale – kind of reminiscent of the final episode of Angel, with that same spirit of “the adventure isn’t over yet.” A worthy ending to the saga, albeit Grounded is more the quintessentially perfect Claremont sci-fi novel.

Overall, like “Deadliest,” this trilogy is a great sci-fi epic, loaded with great ideas and clever twists.


scottmcdarmont said...

Did we confirm that they were marketed as "High Frontier" at some point? I just remember the first two being collected together and sold out of a catalogue under that title; not sure how wide spread it was.

What I recall most about reading these (I'm probably one of the few people here who has read them, and not since I was 15) was the DENSITY of the prose, his descriptions could be downright Faulkner-esque-- only sci-fi--- or, at least, that's how the 15 year old me saw them at the time.

Jason said...

Yeah, the collection you pointed me toward, Scott, is possibly the only time that "High Frontier" was used as the umbrella title. It just seemed a convenient way to talk about them.

I'm actually reading Claremont's other novel trilogy now -- the "Shadow" books that George Lucas commissioned him to do -- and believe me, the descriptions in those books make the "High Frontier" prose seem like Dick and Jane.

Jason said...

Geoff, there should be four more still to go after this, I think:

Fantastic Four, Debt of Honor, WildCATs, and Justice League.

deepfix said...

when visiting my parent's recently, I found my old beat up copy of First Flight (wonder where my copy of Grounded disappeared to?)and I'm about to reread it. And you were so right about the dedication...even now I got a a little teary eyed reading it.
And one day I will understand why a certain musician is one of my favorite characters Chris created. She has no real character or story to her yet she was in my fantasy X-Men line-up and I loved her mention in First Flight.

Teebore said...

Despite my love of Claremont, I avoided these after failing to finish the Shadow trilogy due to literary exhaustion; man, those things are DENSE.

I love X-Men, Star Wars and Willow, and I still couldn't finish off that series.

But now I just might have to check them out, or at least FirstFlight. Your review certainly makes me want to, and a quick Amazon search tells me they can be had for pennies.

Jason said...

"Despite my love of Claremont, I avoided these after failing to finish the Shadow trilogy due to literary exhaustion; man, those things are DENSE. "

*** They really are. I just finished the first one and really loved it, even though the ending is just sort of, "Eh, you gotta read all three, chump. Sorry."

Now I'm reading the second one and it's like starting a whole new project. I thought maybe this one would move faster, since the world had been so thoroughly established in the first one. Not so much.

It's too bad Lucas never filmed these things. Cut out all the descriptions and each one of these books is a 90 minute movie, easy. :)

"Your review certainly makes me want to, and a quick Amazon search tells me they can be had for pennies."

***Yeah, I had lent out my copies years ago and never gotten them back, so I had to re-buy them on Amazon recently. They are gloriously inexpensive.

scottmcdarmont said...

It's too bad Lucas didn't get some Dialogue assistance from Claremont on the Star Wars prequels.... Then again, maybe he did but maybe it was only 'the bad kind' of Claremont dialogue.