Terror Firma by Matthew Thomas
Paperback - 437 pages ( 2 January, 2001) Voyager; ISBN: 0007100221
Review by John Berlyne
Check out this book at: Amazon US / Amazon UK

Those of us who get our kicks from the more high brow literature of genre fiction tend to be a bit snobby about the success of TV shows like The X-Files and their unstoppable merchandising juggernauts. The brand name tea-towels and calendars and cutlery do cheapen the product to some extent but these huge name shows also produce their own spin-off fiction. Many of the writers who jump on this bandwagon are hardly house-hold names but if you scan the back lists you will see one or two that will surprise you by their presence. Vonda McIntyre, Joe Haldeman and K.W Jeter for example have all written Star Trek novels. Terry Bisson has an new (rather slim) X-Files novel out this month in the UK. (Miracle Man - HarperCollins Entertainment. ISBN 0-00-648355-0. £3.99).

All this is a roundabout way of getting into reviewing the new novel by Matthew Thomas (a pseudonym) - Terror Firma. This has just been released in the UK as a paperback original (with cover art also by Thomas!). Published by HarperCollins/Voyager, ISBN 0-00-710022-1, priced £5.99. I guess my preamble is relevant here in so much with Terror Firma being a humorous novel about conspiracy theories, Thomas almost certainly wouldn't have written it if it were not for The X-Files. That is not say that Terror Firma is a homage to the show, nor is it obviously based on it in any way - but it is certainly aimed (tongue-in-cheek) at the same market.

Terror Firma has an intentionally clichéd plot which I won't spend too much time explaining. We're talking crashed UFO's, alien abductions, government conspiracies, Black Ops, religious cults - all the usual stuff. What Thomas offers in addition to this is a top tier - a definitive highest level of conspiracy. "The Committee" is a collection of 300 shadowy individuals (under the leadership of a particular dear old lady who happens to live in a large palace in central London) and these are the people who are really in control. It is they that control all our governments, who orchestrate all disinformation and they are doing it for their own dastardly ends.

It takes a while for Thomas go get all this up and running and he does so eventually through a succession of dysfunctional protagonists - again all intentionally (I hope!) rather clichéd. We have Frank MacIntyre, a former US special forces soldier and hyper-paranoid killing machine. Frank spends much of the novel attempting to keep the putrefying corpse of a deceased (but genuine) alien "Gray" from falling into the wrong hands. To help him with this task he enlists Dave Pierce - a bewildered British UFO watcher very much in the Arthur Dent mould. The two of them, together with Dave's TV researcher friend and would be love Kate, team up with one Becker, a man once part of the infamous Committee and having discovered their true nature now devote his energies to putting a spanner in their works. A number of "capers" ensue including a denouement involving a set of aliens straight out of Lovecraft.

An awful lot is crammed into Terror Firma. Thomas leaves no modern day conspiracy theory out of the picture - GM foods, Elvis, Kennedy, even the apparent world domination of Pokemon - everything gets in somewhere. The net result is a feeling of overcrowding and consequently this book seemed to take an age to get through - and I'm a pretty fast reader. I got the impression too that Thomas has written this very much with the commuter in mind. The novel comprises of 64 rapid-fire chapters each of which might take you the length of a short tube journey to digest. Taking in the whole thing in just a couple of sittings though and you start to wonder when he's going to get to the point.

Thomas has a wry sense of humor but he has a long way to go before he becomes as skilled as other satiric Brits writing in the genre. On the strength of Terror Firma though, it's fair to say that he could one day get up there alongside Adams and Pratchett. For the moment though he still lacks their lightness of touch. Much of Thomas's jokes and amusing similes seem slightly leaden and over-cooked. He hits the target more often than not and if you read Terror Firma you'll laugh - but probably not as much as the author wants you to.