Transformers: Ghosts of Yesterday by Alan Dean Foster is “[t]he story you must read—before Transformers rockets to the big screen!” Until I saw the book on the shelves of my local independent bookseller, I hadn’t been aware that there were prerequisites to seeing Michael Bay’s big screen treatment of my favorite childhood transforming-robot toys, ((I’m still waiting for the announcement that John McTiernan (Die Hard) will be directing the GoBots movie. Any day now…)) but I certainly didn’t want to show up at the theater bright-eyed with cash in hand only to be turned away at the box office due to my own ill-preparedness.
I think Paramount and Dreamworks dropped the ball on this; in all the Transformers pre-release hype—trailers, GM and Burger King tie-in commercials—there’s not a single indication that the audience needs to read a book before they can watch the movie. I can only imagine the scene that will play out over and over, all across the country (if not the world) tomorrow evening:
“One for Transformers, please.”
“Have you read Ghosts of Yesterday?”
“Ghosts of Yesterday; it’s the official prequel to the blockbuster film. Have you read it?”
“Sorry, no one sees the movie until they read the book. Next, please!”
“Wait a minute! I want to see Transformers!”
“Sorry, kid. Rules is rules. You gotta read the book. Step aside, please. Don’t make me call security.”
The real tragedy is that Ghosts of Yesterday isn’t an especially good book. The story revolves around a top-secret space mission that coincides with the 1969 launch of Apollo 11, the not-at-all-secret space mission that first put a man on the moon. ((You know, if you believe in that sort of thing.)) While the world watches Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin make their historic voyage to
a Hollywood soundstage Earth’s only satellite, a secret government agency known as Sector Seven covertly launches Ghost One, an experimental spaceship derived from alien technology. The source of the technology is “The Ice Man”, a giant mechanoid being, one of two alien artifacts held in secret by the United States government.
During its maiden voyage, Ghost One encounters an unexpected phenomenon on the far side of the sun: a wormhole that transports the ship and its crew to an unknown area of outer space, where they encounter two warring factions of sentient mechanical beings who have been exploring the vast reaches of the universe in search of a lucrative merchandising deal.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, the powers-that-be decide to move The Ice Man from the frozen Arctic wastes to balmy Arizona, where there’s absolutely no chance he’ll thaw and wreak havoc on humanity; I mean, just put that thought right out of your head, it’s all perfectly safe. Unfortunately, it’s 1969, and no one’s thought to end the Cold War just yet. The Russians, perhaps a little annoyed that we’re about to beat them to
a soundstage in Hollywood the moon, arrange for a little accident en route to Arizona.
It’s not a terrible story, but it felt empty to me. Maybe Transformers—perfectly suited to toys and comic books and animated television series—just don’t translate well to the realm of pure prose. Foster makes almost no effort to describe the giant robots, other than to say that they’re giant robots. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that if you’re reading the book you know what a Transformer looks like so there’s no point in wasting words describing them. And while the story certainly sets the stage for the movie, it really doesn’t accomplish much of anything else. The human characters, for the most part, are just sketches with little opportunity for any true development; of the Transformers themselves, only the Decepticon Starscream and the Autobots Optimus Prime and Bumblebee get much in the way of “face time”, but they’re in constant battle with one another and the only part of their characters that really comes across is the fact that they’d like to destroy their enemies.
I’m glad I read the book, if only because now I’ll be able to stride proudly up to the box office and say, “One for Transformers, please, my good ticketmonger! I have completed the required reading and am fully prepared to enjoy an evening of motion picture entertainment!”