Friday, September 15, 2017

Ranking the Stargate novels

It's odd that there were no cinematic sequels to Stargate. Not that it needed them, or that it likely would have been any good, you'd just think the studio would be keen to milk that successful blend of sci-fi, Egyptology, ancient alien conspiracy, white supremacy and dumb action movie until it was left as barren and arid as an Abydosian plain.

But there were sequels! At least in book form. Bill McCay was contracted to write five further adventures for Jack O'Neil, Daniel Jackson and presumably that old man who eats Daniel's chocolate bar and exclaims "bunny weh!" They may not be any closer to what a real sequel would have been like than Splinter of the Mind's Eye was to The Empire Strikes Back.

Why only five? Either interest dried up or Bill ran out of titles starting with 'Re-' and they ran out of colours to slightly differentiate the boring, identical covers. Join me on the other side as we discover The Top 5 Stargate Novels. I suppose there's a chance they might even be good?

5. Stargate: Resistance (1999)

The fifth and arbitrarily final book (they basically kept getting worse, apart from the third being better than the second to add some variety) fortunately doesn't end on an eternally unresolved cliffhanger, not that I would have lost sleep over it. It's the only totally clean ending in the series, finally resolving the arc of the Abydos refugees that had troubled McCay so, so it's safe to assume he knew his talents were no longer required. We want SG-1 novels now, granddad.

Picking up directly where the previous book left off, there's no time for faffing around with debates and politics as the battle with the cat people is still raging. Bill clarifies a few final universe jigsaw pieces along the way, but learning more about the race that he reckons built the StarGates (sic) hardly matters at this point in the terminated continuity. It's mostly occupied with forest combat and killing little children. Someone didn't take his firing well.

4. Stargate: Reconnaissance (1998)

Unexciting title and palette swap cover art that no longer bears any relation to the actual Stargate colour? Welcome to the supplemental years of an already supplementary series.

TV spin-off SG-1 was on the air by this point, a connection the book is visibly keen to capitalise on, despite the discordant continuity. So with McCay's Hathor/Abydos arc tied up, he was presumably instructed to shift the focus to exploring new horizons through random Stargates, and just keep on doing that until the phone stops ringing.

But because he's Bill McCay, he has to go and dampen the adventurous spirit with depressing politics and in-fighting among the increasingly annoying Abydos refugees. As always, this is abandoned on cue around the half-way mark to focus on the new external threat of cyborg leopards or something. So he set up all those other Egyptian gods and power struggles in the first book for nothing.

3. Stargate: Retaliation (1996)

McCay's self-sequel exaggerates the imbalance of its predecessor, spending almost the entire first half on dull domestic disputes that threaten to tear the recently liberated Abydos apart before Hathor returns in the second half in an even bigger spaceship and does that more literally.

It's such a jarring shift from boring politics and romantic angst back to dumb action movie mode that it feels like it was written by two different people, or by the same author whose first 100 pages weren't well received and was told to sort it out.

A couple of forgotten characters from the film return for the sake of it and McCay has fun retconning sci-fi explanations onto more Egyptian myths, which is always the best thing about these. The abrupt climax changes the narrative considerably and moves things along, which can only be a good thing. Surely.

2. Stargate: Retribution (1997)

With Abydos destroyed and the even-more-vengeful Hathor setting her sights on Earth, this closing installment of the original book trilogy probably isn't far off what a genuine Stargate sequel would have been. Basically Independence Day with a giant flying tetrahedron instead of circles. If you'd seen that film but hadn't seen Stargate (yet were still inexplicably reading this book), you'd be excused for mentally casting Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith as the leads. And wondering where the humour went.

There's more to it than that, as McCay customarily explores the realistic political ramifications of the nonsense with an Abydan refugee crisis, squabbling over budgets and international agreements and everyday Islamic terrorism. On a brighter note, the series returns to its roots as we dig up more forgotten alien artifacts on Earth, so that was nice.

After being royally screwed over in the previous book, Daniel Jackson is redeemed here as Earth's level-headed saviour, even if it was his genius that caused this whole mess, twice over now. Jack O'Neil's still around too, for contractual reasons, but he's irrelevant.

1. Stargate: Rebellion (1995)

McCay's first book is partly the Stargate II you'd expect, replacing the defeated Ra with another false Egyptian deity who shows up in a bigger ship for an action-packed ending that's pretty much the same as the film. Except that Hathor survives for a vengeful rematch (Update: x2).

The universe-building is the most interesting angle, as we shake off the human-centric narrative every couple of chapters to get a detailed overview of how Space Egypt works. It's not exactly Dune, but these power struggles between god pretender contenders should see us through a few books without things having to get silly and desperate. Let's see how that goes. (Update: cat people).

The most substantial chunk of the story is less predictable, as McCay pulls on the film's uncomfortable colonial parallels until they unravel into a full-on condemnation of American foreign policy and the exploitation of the developing world under the friendly guise of universalisation.

It's a surprisingly mature and interesting approach that treats the Stargate premise more seriously than it really deserves. Nude combat and explosions aside, it would have made a boring movie.

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