This one might need a bit of background. Lately, I’ve been getting interested in something called speculative evolution, which is a branch of science fiction about how life might evolve on other planets—or in the future, or in Earth’s past, for example if the dinosaurs hadn’t gone extinct. This is more than just inventing aliens for a sci-fi story. This is inventing aliens with the whole environment they live and evolved in. The movie Avatar did this…decently well, with its lush jungle and many carefully-designed animals, although there was still quite a bit of room for improvement.
Sometimes, you’ll see works that are specifically about speculative evolution. The most famous ones of the twenty-first century are probably the docu-fiction series The Future is Wild and the sci-fi drama Primeval. And this is where Junction falls.
Junction is the debut novel of Daniel M. Bensen. I happened to see him advertising it on a speculative evolution forum, and I decided to check it out. In the story, Junction is a planet that is connected to Earth and many other planets via wormholes, and we see lots of speculative evolution there with lifeforms from other planets spreading through the wormholes to Junction and interacting with one another.
The science and the alien life, those were pretty cool. The plot, the characters—that needs some work. Mr. Bensen has made a fair start; I didn’t have any trouble getting through the book, which isn’t always the case, but honestly, I came for the aliens and stayed for the aliens.
My rating: 3 out of 5.
Junction opens on Daisuke Matsumori. (Pronounced “Dice-kay,” apparently, and the author has spent time living in Japan, so I believe him.) Daisuke is a Japanese TV personality who hosts a very scripted nature show (think Bear Grylls, but even more fake). He’s filming the final episode before he retires when he’s called away by the government to investigate the wormhole to Junction, which was recently discovered by actual biologist Ann Houlihan on the island of New Guinea (Indonesian West Papua, not Papua New Guinea, as some of the reviews say).
And this is where I found the first problem. The first chapter, where Daisuke is ordered to go to New Guinea with over-the-top threats and no explanation, felt rushed and confusing. Going through the wormhole with no fanfare and still almost no explanation was much the same. Bensen doesn’t really hit his stride until about Chapter 3.
On the other side of the wormhole, Daisuke and Ann join an international military expedition to explore the planet beyond, which is populated by (previously-uncontacted) human natives who have known about it for centuries, along with alien life from many different worlds. From plants made of glass to animals seemingly made of liquid metal, the team are forced to survive in an environment where they know nothing about the dangers from without, all while also dealing with shady conspiracies coming from within.
It’s fun if you like speculative evolution like me, and Bensen is very creative with the alien life he invents (while mostly still adhering to good science). But beyond that, the writing felt very unpolished. This was a debut novel, and honestly, it showed.
My biggest problem was that I didn’t find the characters very likable. They weren’t a complete turn-off, but I cared about them more in how I wanted to see them stick it to the (even worse) military men and solve the mystery, than for their own well-being.
Daisuke comes off as a jerk. Between low-key obsessing over his attraction to Ann and his constant urge to perform for the camera and narrate everything in his head, he’s just too self-absorbed to be likable. (Maybe it’s just a case of Reality is Unrealistic. People’s unfiltered thoughts sound a lot different from their words and actions, but it still didn’t come off well.)
Ann herself is a bit grating, but in her case, I think that’s kind of the point. Her bluntness and self-deprecation are part of her charm—except I didn’t find it as endearing as Daisuke did. I still wanted to try to boost her self-confidence, but she seemed like she would be a hard person to get along with. Also, it felt unrealistic when she started coming on to Daisuke as soon as he told her he was (sort-of) available.
The romance…I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. There were some weird and possibly unhealthy aspects to it. I guess it wasn’t as bad once they got together. By then, it just felt like two lonely and incredibly socially awkward people doing what amounts to flirting for them. You have to see the relationship in action to buy it, but yes, Ann really does push Daisuke to be more than an empty shell; and yes, Daisuke does get Anne to stop overthinking things and be genuine while still rounding off her rough edges. In other words, it’s less shallow than Daisuke makes it sound. It still doesn’t feel like something that would hold up once they got back to Earth, though.
The other problem I had with the book was the shadowy military conspiracies. (As a side note, the initial jump to Colonel Pearson’s viewpoint was really jarring after we’d spent the first third of the book entirely in Daisuke’s head, but that’s a minor stylistic point.) Long story short, the whole thing felt out of place in a wilderness survival story, and it took me out of the story.
It was weird to begin with that the military men, one American and one Indonesian, regarded Ann as a “traitor” for making her discovery public—despite the fact that she’s an Australian civilian and thus doesn’t have to answer to either of them. They then have everyone wear cameras to use as evidence against wrongdoing on anyone’s part, but in their point-of-view scenes, they start thinking about having to kill people for reasons that don’t even make sense (apparently endangering the plan in some way). Their actions were too opaque to really get the conspiracy.
I feel like I’m talking this book down a lot, and that’s not the attitude I want to convey. I still think it was worth reading for me. As a writer myself, I see this as constructive criticism—perhaps something for Mr. Bensen to keep in mind while he’s writing the sequel if he should happen to see this post. And as a writer, I know from experience that constructive criticism can sometimes seem pretty harsh (respectful always, but sometimes harsh) because that’s what’s needed to forge an idea into a truly great story. For what it’s worth, I actually am inclined to buy the planned sequel (again, mostly for the aliens, but still), and I hope to see Mr. Bensen’s growth as a writer when it’s published.
ah HA! I *did* find your post while ego-searching 😉 I thank you for your constructive criticism – it has overlaps with the opinions of others, including myself. The sequel is done, and hopefully it’ll be an improvement. It’s not due to be out until July 2021…but let me know if you’d like an advance reader copy