Timothy Zahn’s new Terminator tie-in is set very firmly in James Cameron-land, where the atmosphere sings with grit, technology is something to be used or feared, and family groups become guerilla-troops led by stoic male warriors and hardware-touting housewives.
Zahn knows the territory and does it justice, writing at a breakneck pace while introducing characters that will reappear in the movie Terminator Salvation.
It’s 2018. Combat-ready couple John and Kate Connor have survived a computer-led apocalypse and are waging war against Terminator death squads. They’re working with a small, dedicated band of freedom fighters, and they need help from a larger organized human army. So John attempts a mission so daring – so dangerous – that the army will have no choice but to take notice and resupply his men.
LA is a veritable wasteland, but humans are still alive, avoiding Hunter-Killer flying machines, and scavenging, even building peaceable communities in the rubble of their lost civilization. Marine Sergeant Justo Orozco has fallen in with just such a group, hiding out at the cheerfully named Moldering Lost Ashes. Orozco is concerned about defending so many civilians and he doesn’t think they’re as safe as they feel, but he can’t abandon them.
Connor knows that an attack on Lost Ashes is imminent. While the Terminators are busy hunting unarmed humans, he sends some of his team to raid Skynet’s staging area. The plan goes pear-shaped. A lot of people die.
Thankfully, this book has a cogent finale instead of a cliffhanger leading into the movie. Life may be short in Cameron-land, but it’s still precious and readers will care about what happens to the supporting characters.
Zahn’s taken the time to write a fully-formed story with some hints about its filmic follow-up. Kate demands that she joins the soldiers in the field, rather than staying on base. This leads to friction between her and John. There’s a focus on two feisty young characters, Kyle and Star, who join Connor’s grim group. We also meet Blair, a hotshot fighter pilot, and Barnes, a ruffian who loves big guns and blowing things up.
As does Zahn. True to its origins, this story is a hymn to weaponry in its various forms: automatic rifles, pipe bombs, A-10 Warthog attack planes and Gatling guns. Once the Terminators begin their siege of Lost Ashes the pace is compellingly fast. Thankfully, the T-600s are a believable threat, as remorseless as Arnie’s original ‘borg. They pursue without tiring, stopping at nothing to track down their targets. With their one-track minds and total lack of emotion, they are the cybernetic equivalent of the Student Loans Company.
Zahn’s prelude has its flaws. The characters are likeable but they’re also seriously underdeveloped, especially in the case of John Connor. His attempts to keep his wife at home come across as old fashioned at best, sexist at worst. Connor’s men are barely described; one is bald, one is old, and that’s about all we get, so it’s hard to differentiate between them when the action hots up. Worst of all, the book refers to Terminator 3, a movie we’d rather drop into an alternate dimension and forget about (kind of like the TV show does).
But all in all, Ashes bodes well for the movie. All the ingredients for a good action film are there, and there are one or two scenes towards the end where you can imagine Christian Bale poking his head out from behind a rubbled wall, dodging Terminator minigun fire with a wry expression on his face. If Terminator Salvation maintains the breakneck pace of the first two movies – and this book – the franchise will undoubtedly rise from the ashes.
Terminator Salvation: From the Ashes is out now.