Return to the Island of the Apes

Originally posted on, now defunct.

Preamble: Hell Island is a stupid book and Matthew Reilly is a pretty bad writer.

That out of the way, there's a certain charm to this sort of book once you look past the choppy, breathless, and often nonsensical prose. In grades three and four, we had to write in our journals every morning and I would usually write about pirates, buried treasure, dinosaurs, or all three mixed together. Occasionally you would find chainsaw-wielding werewolves fighting werewolf-hunters also armed with chainsaws but with silver chains.

Hell Island is a lot like that, italics and all. Only instead of chainsaw-wielding werewolves, we find machine gun-toting gorillas. See, US military scientists have been breeding super ape soldiers on an uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean. Something goes horribly wrong, as such situations do, and Captain Shane “Scarecrow” Schofield is sent in with a crack team of marines to clear things up.

Reilly is already something a favourite here on Ferretbrain. According to the introduction, Hell Island was Reilly's “most rewarding” book to write. “I set out to write 110 pages of the most kick-butt, over-the-top, blindingly fast action I could,” as part of an initiative to get Australians to read more. This is actually a short story, not a novel, extended through the magic of typesetting and frequent illustrations (as well as an excerpt from another Reilly novel tacked on the end accounting for a full fifth of the page-count) to something approaching novel length. You can read it in less than one dizzying hour. Had it been longer, I don't think I would have finished. The overuse of seemingly random italics noted in earlier reviews of Reilly's work is there, the joyfully frequent exclamation marks as well as the over-reliance on onomatopoeia, most especially the word blam. Or shoom. Or braaaaaaaaaap. The last is apparently the sound an M-4 makes, which is a useful thing to know. When events get really exciting, Reilly's stylistic skills aren't up to the task, and it gets hard to tell what's going on even with helpful illustrations on the facing page. At this point, Reilly's child-like excitement is no longer enough to carry the story. The same eleven-year-old boy quality that makes A Princess of Mars still more-or-less readable is absent here because Reilly is incapable of the purple prose that is just ridiculous enough to make you giggle. He simply glosses over the crazy shit going on instead of explaining it at length. Neither is there the wild inventiveness or imagination that the beginning of Hell Island seemed to promise; Schofield and his marines dispatch large groups of gorillas by launching various ape-laden vehicles into the ocean no less than three times.

I don't feel too bad about giving away spoilers, because thumbing through this once and looking at the pictures will do that anyway.

So it turns out the gorillas were turned into super soldiers through “grafting technology” where “you attach—or graft—a microchip to the brain of your subject...[t]heir brain engages with the chip and the chip sends a signal to the computer. But,” as Schofield explains, “I've heard it can work the other way around...”

No, Schofield, it can't. But whatever. Why Schofield knows this is never explained, and he does know a lot of plot-relevant things by happy happenstance. For instance, his grandfather just happened to have been part of the team that assaulted Hell Island during the Second World War, so of course Schofield knows every inch of the tunnel system built by the Japanese there, and how to flood the tunnels in case of attack by a numerically superior force. Awfully convenient, that.

In any case, Hell Island nearly lost me with its final twist. It turns out there was no horrible accident at Hell Island: the 400 marines slaughtered there before were part of an exercise testing the gorillas' combat readiness, the crack teams sent in to discover what happened were in fact one final ordeal before US high command would decide to put the gorillas on the battlefield. Dr. Dr. Knox explains this all to Schofield's team. He wears a white lab coat and glasses and carries a clipboard because that's what evil egghead scientists look like. However, his eggheadness is not enough to foresee what Schofield & co. does next. Knox orders their execution, the marines obviously ain't having none of that and use a run-of-the-mill signal jammer so that the scientists can no longer control the gorillas. The fake disaster postulated previously finally happens, the gorillas turn feral and rip their masters to shreds, and then the marines flood the tunnels to drown all their simian foes.

This also proves that the gorillas weren't actually combat-ready, so it was probably a good thing.

The anti-intellectualism running beneath most of Hell Island thus rises fully to the surface. Because scientists totally do terrible things like make super soldier gorillas and then set them on American soldiers instead of following the usual US policy and testing them in/around an allied third world country. Or Canada.

In any case, the plane meant to airlift out the gorillas only finds Schofield and his marines to bring home—presumably to a court marshal for destroying a top-secret military installation.

As you might gather, I was not altogether impressed by Hell Island. Even gorilla-soldiers couldn't save a bland, cliched read; there wasn't even a Bootlord of Bearderia to lighten the mood. So I'm afraid I have yet to be convinced of Reilly's merits.

It's therefore fortunate that there's a sample of The Five Greatest Warriors immediately following Hell Island proper, since unlike this bland specimen, that looks absolutely cracktastic.