But it is a proverbial mistake to judge a book by its cover, for to enter James Roberts's world is to enter a world transformed, where things are not what they seem. This world sees no barbarians rage nor dragons roar. It bears witness neither to wars nor treks among the stars. This is a world of sentient machines, warring androids caught fast in an age-old conflict. This is a world conceived in the fires of corporate development, born in the era of the Gipper, and sustained by the love of children worldwide for almost two decades.
This is a story about Transformers. And fittingly enough, the novel is much more than meets the eye.
In the early 1980's, Rhode Island-based toy company Hasbro hit upon the idea of releasing toys that transformed from vehicles into futuristic robots, essentially doubling each toy's play value. The line was a smash success, heavily buoyed by a popular television cartoon and comic book series. Despite succumbing to the fickle whims of popular taste, the line managed to rebound and, like a sort of Star Trek for children, has maintained its popularity through various incarnations over the years up to the present day.
Surprisingly, as the line aged, a large portion of the initial fanbase remained loyal. But primary colors and flashy battles no longer remain the draw for these fans, many of whom now have children of their own. The enduring attraction of the Transformers series seems less about simple nostalgia than the unique take on a universal premise. The creators of the comic and television series painted a breathtaking picture of a fantastical world populated by living machines fighting a war that had raged for millions of years. Politics, drama, humor, and a human-like empathy were woven into a tapestry that put a twist on the eternal struggle between Good and Evil.
First things first. On the metallic world of Cybertron, the heroic Autobots battled the evil Decepticons for control of the planet. In what was perhaps a reflection of residual anxieties about OPEC and the energy crisis of the 70's, writers chose to make energy the crux of the narrative. With their world long since drained to a husk by a never-ending war, the two factions left their planet in search of more energy. Four million years ago, they crash-landed on Earth, beginning a Rip Van Winkle-like slumber that would last until Debbie Gibson. In 1984, they awoke, and the world was never again the same.
_Frasier_ fans make websites. "Transfans" inhabit a shadowy world of newsgroups, webpages, chat rooms, internet relays, and (illegal) episode downloads. They hold conventions and publish newsletters, clamor for exclusive toys and get them. Like veteran antiquers, they boast of their latest finds and newest acquisitions to any who will listen. A used Fortress Maximus fetches $500, a gold-plated Optimus Prime, $3000. Three months ago, a seller on Ebay offered an almost complete mint collection of the original run. The asking price? A whopping $30,000. Joe Millionaire could live off that for a year. The Transformers toys, Hasbro's bread and butter, are even celebrities unto themselves. Fans whisper on newsgroups about the latest Optimus sighting in a remote Walgreens, and leak unauthorized photos of a nude (well, unpainted) Ultra Magnus to the web. Needless to say, cosmetic alterations to their beloved toys are greeted with the revulsion normally reserved for Michael Jackson's latest nose job.
But it is the storyline that fans hold sacrosanct. Writer Robert Skir's decision to create a darker, organic Cybertron for the 1999 CGI television series _Beast Machines: Transformers_ won him few popularity points with the fandom. Skir's actions earned him numerous death threats, and incited more hate than a thousand Bin Laden speeches. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the latest incarnation of the series has abandoned any pretense of a maturity and delivers bland, insipid episodes aimed at pre-schoolers who like their primary colors with a dash of Energon.
Older fans, dissatisfied with the puerility of the official material since the early days, remedy this with a healthy dose of fanfiction. The quality of the writing ranges from the cringe-inducing to the occasionally sublime. These generally forgettable works run the gamut from ill-conceived robotic porn to misspelled actioners so awful, a roomful of monkeys with a typewriter and a set of Transformer DVDs might have fared better. Some writers, however, clearly aspire to a higher standard. Their websites hold stories rich in characterization and dramatic in scope, truly breathing life into these walking tin cans.
Among them, James Roberts has set his sights the highest. His unauthorized, self-published novel is entitled _Eugenesis_, and details a grim chapter in the history of the original Robots in Disguise. The experienced "Transfan" will be in the science-fiction adherent's equivalent of hog heaven. The casual reader, however, may find himself bewildered by the dizzying amount of obscure references and asides that litter the novel. _Eugenesis_ takes place in the year 2012, with the Transformer war driving both sides to the brink of destruction. Corruption from within proves as weakening as enemies without, and the arrival of a powerful third party threatens to exterminate both Autobot and Decepticon for eternity.
The author has opined that "I think the Transformers concept is durable enough to support a mature story." And indeed, Roberts is to be commended for transforming a storyline aimed at grade-schoolers into a mature tale that cautiously approaches epic stature. Considering the fantastical premise, he constructs a surprisingly realistic tale of war; one can smell the cordite and the carnage, revel in small victories, and recoil in horror at a world so devastated by conflict. The cartoons ignored that aspect to focus instead on cute Saturday-morning storylines that could be resolved in a half-hour. With _Eugenesis_, Roberts succeeds in exposing the full terrifying scope of a war that has raged for millions of years. Powerplays and politics lend resonance to the battles that occur, often taking center stage. The interpersonal dynamics between the various Transformers are handled in a credible fashion that restore realism to the most unrealistic scenarios. This not to imply that action is given short shrift, for the fighting is frequent and furious. Nor does the action serve some obligatory masturbatory fix; he cleverly avoids the tedium that accompanies extended battle scenes by subordinating them to the plot. The novel maintains a fantastic tension throughout, with just the right number of pauses to let the reader catch his breath. The tone is spot-on; the ever-present sense of doom hovers cloudlike throughout, as befits a novel of war. Roberts manages to depict the war realistically and beautifully, reminding us that actions have consequences, that war and death are often far less glorious than propaganda would have them be. The official canon largely skirted the implications of war, preferring a simplified tale of good vs. evil. Roberts refuses to shy from describing the realities, from reluctant soldiers and simple pragmatists to heroes wracked with self-doubt and pity.
Unfortunately, the novel's greatest flaw stems from its fanfiction beginnings. _Eugenesis_ operates on the assumption that its readers are well-versed in all things Transformers. There is no point of entry, no "our story to date" to familiarize the uninformed reader. The casual fan who picks up the novel out of nostalgia for a dimly remembered past will be disappointed. A spotty recollection of old cartoon shows and a catchy jingle ("Transformers...More than meets the eyes...Transformers..Robots in Disguise!") will avail one little. Readers are simply dropped into the middle of events without preparation or explanation, alienating them from the start. As a result, enjoyment of the novel will increase exponentially with increased knowledge of the Transformers world. In all fairness, the Transformers continuity has had twenty years to develop a rich backstory, often rife with internal contradictions. Recounting the whole of it might well have consumed the better part of _Eugenesis_'s 560 pages. Still, the novel would have benefited tremendously from the inclusion of an (Optimus) primer on the world of the Transformers.
The assumption of familiarity with the source material negatively impacts the characterization as well. Roberts relies far too heavily on readers' previous experience with the characters and the associations they bring to the table. He does provide certain protagonists with detailed, and often fascinating conflicts, but without a solid foundation, his superb attempts at characterization sink into an quagmire of impersonal detachment. Nightbeat, Kup, and Prowl are gifted with moving dialogues and internal monologues. Unfortunately, the impact is diluted when the characters are given less of an introduction than they receive in this review.
Roberts also wastes precious time and space concentrating on superficial characterizations of new or lesser-known characters for whom the target audience presumably cares little. Who are Rev-Tone and Quark, and more importantly, who cares? The thrill of the ride is thus somewhat tempered by the lack of an emotional connection with much of the cast. Famous favorites are unexpectedly MIA, among them the Dinobots, the Constructicons, and Starscream. Standing in for these A-list robots are the supernumeraries of the Transformer world, unknowns and footnotes whose inclusion does nothing for the story. Those recognizable faces that are used are often mischaracterized, overwhelmingly underdeveloped, or reduced to ciphers in service of the plot. The appeal of fanfiction often lies in the fleshing out of characters previously delineated in official lore in the most superficial ways. Roberts takes a step back, his excellent portrayal of the war coming at the cost of character development.
In addition, the jacket design is of singularly dubious merit. In an attempt to avoid portraying actual Transformers and earn the wrath of Hasbro’s legal department, _Eugenesis_ instead features a black and white photo of junked automobiles on the cover; part of a faux Penguin Classics design for the entire book (closer inspection reveals the publisher to be “Polyhex Classics,” a Transformers reference, naturally). With these wrappings, the book could easily mingle unnoticed alongside _Middlemarch_ and _The Canterbury Tales_. Whether it deserves such illustrious company is somewhat questionable. Like the “grown-up” covers on _Harry Potter_ reprints in the UK, this tactic seems designed to allow the child within to enjoy himself without embarrassing the adult without. Perhaps it’s a British thing.
All told, _Eugenesis_ is outstanding, successfully transforming a toy-based, children-targeted storyline into a mature science-fiction saga. James Roberts employs an engaging writing style, a fascinating narrative, and a realistic and brutal portrayal of an eternally warring world. Recommended.