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The Fugitive Stars by Daniel Ransom2 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsDaniel Ransom is the nom de plume of one Ed Gorman, an ordinarily terrific writer who has worked in such diverse genres as mysteries, political thrillers, horror, and westerns. He has an impressive talent for cutting to the chase with a screenwriter’s efficiency (indeed, Gorman has done a lot of screenwriting), delivering action-packed, pulpy tales in the Richard Matheson or Trevanian mold. In his best books, like the psychological horror freakout Cage of Night, Gorman populates his narratives with everyman characters who ring true. This SF effort, unfortunately, is well below his A-game. While this contemporary retelling of the old Puppet Masters/Body Snatchers alien-possession schtick flies by like the movies that inspired it (Gorman acknowledges such classic film luminaries as Val Lewton and Body Snatchers director Don Siegel), its breakneck pace cannot successfully compensate for too much silliness and good old fashioned “author’s convenience” in the plotting.

Michael Raines spent his youth in a government research study into ESP and telepathy, a power with which he and a handful of people are gifted. Now right off the bat, I must say that I can certainly accept such paranormal concepts in fantasy novels, where things like magical powers and other fantastical violations of natural law are commonplace and fit well within that genre’s idioms. But in SF stories set in the real world or variations thereof, I have a bit more trouble suspending my disbelief for it. There are simply the practical considerations: even one person living today with psychic powers, in a world full of people who don’t have them, would just about rule the world, period. Gorman seems to realize this credibility conundrum and accordingly makes such powers, in his story, not only extremely unreliable, but virtually useless once the gifted individual has left adolescence behind. It is only with dangerous experimental drugs that aging adults can maintain psychic powers to any significant degree.

So Gorman does succeed somewhat in dodging a bullet where his premise is concerned. Sadly, other aspects of his story come up wanting. Raines awakens one day to find someone has mysteriously delivered a newspaper clipping to his door, which details an ill-fated space mission to intercept a newly discovered (and virtually invisible) comet hurtling past Earth. Almost immediately, people Raines knows whose work might give them any knowledge of the mission and the potential fate of its crew start turning up dead, and even Raines barely avoids a hit. What’s up!? Raines finds himself racing against time, accompanied by the wife of said mission’s vanished captain, to discover exactly what went on up there, and what threat it might pose to us down here, before they are done in by nasty government goons.

Without delivering too many spoilers, almost the whole story is as contrived and formulaic as they come. Consider the scene in which Raines first meets Pam Campbell, the astronaut’s wife. Raines shows up in her Washington DC neighborhood, having traced the newspaper clipping to her, when she pulls up in her car and yells at him to get in. (How’d she know he’d be there at that instant?) Then they’re chased by trigger-happy baddies, whom she manages to evade just long enough for Raines to get out of the car and position himself by the roadside, where he is able to shoot out their windshield and rear tire as they race by at 85 mph, causing them to crash and explode.

Even Michael Bay would find that stupid.

The rest of the novel hits more of these perfunctory bad-movie clichés until you’re left with a final result that’s just deeply, deliriously dippy. And then there is the whole concept of the mysterious and sinister alien “virus” that has been brought back to Earth by the ill-fated astronauts, who spread it to others by kissing, interestingly enough. But then you ask, if this is how it’s spread, how did the first astronauts get infected in the first place? Things like this come across in the story as if Gorman just didn’t think them through. Yes, Gorman — er, Ransom — still has his action chops down pat. While the book is utterly stupid it’s at least never dull. In its defense, you could say that reading it provides the same guilty-pleasure entertainment value to be had from watching low budget schlock. Just keep in mind that this is the version of Body Snatchers going direct-to-video.

Gorman died in 2016.