The Floating Zombie by D.F. Jones
Berkley Medallion, 1975
Price I paid: $1.25
Before AT1 had ground down the slipway unchristened―rightly, said seamen, for it would be a ship with no soul―it had been dubbed “Zombie.” That sinister name would stick, and prove its accuracy. AT1 was a robot-ship, a ship with no crew, only a tiny security force of 3 men and a woman. “Invulnerable,” said its inventors, and “foolproof.”
But it was neither―not if one of the 4 security guards was an insane, ruthless killer. And if the greatest and most powerful self-contained nuclear reactor in the world fell into the hands of such a person, the whole world was in peril!
this takes the cake.
The most true thing on the cover of this novel is the bit that says FIRST TIME IN PAPERBACK.
I just find it so hard to believe that the publisher lied THIS HARD. I know; that may come as a surprise. I’ve seen lots of book that have lying covers. It’s my most bitched-about thing and I’m sure you’re all quite tired of hearing about it.
But this one, like I say, takes the cake.
“A ship of the future threatens all Earth,” says the front cover. The back continues this line of thinking. “The whole world was in peril!” we’re told. Something about the largest nuclear reactor in the world being in the hands of an insane madman is, we’re led to believe, the plot of this book.
None of that is true.
The world is not, at any point in this novel, at risk. This is not a fault of the novel, mind you. I’m not saying this is a plot where an insane madman threatens the world but is so inept that he’s not convincing. Oh, no. I’m telling you something much more powerful than that. That’s not what the story was about at all, nor was it ever meant to be.
To continue, it’s also a major, major lie that the ship in question bore the largest and most powerful nuclear reactor in the world. How big is this lie? Let’s take it from the top:
IT DOESN’T HAVE A NUCLEAR REACTOR AT ALL.
I’m serious, fellas and ladies. This ship is not nuclear. It is conventionally fueled. It is not especially dangerous. It’s kind of big, but it’s not as big as some other tankers that we see floating past. It has some weapons, but they’re just some guns. Maybe a rocket launcher.
Never in my life have I seen a book so mis-represented by the publisher. I assume it’s because they thought that the book would sell better if it were a world-threatening story of untold nuclear destruction instead of what the book actually was: A competent interpersonal drama about some people in dire circumstances.
The bits about the ship being a robot were true. It’s basically the fact that sets this whole novel off. But the ship itself isn’t dangerous.
AT1 is the first in a line of automated tanker ships. Instead of a crew of fifty or so people―who all need to be fed, housed, and paid―the ship instead carries some security guards to make sure the ship doesn’t get hijacked. The only reason it carries those guards is because the insurance company demanded it.
How many guards does it carry? Well, don’t let the back of the book fool you, because it’s not three men and a woman. There are, in fact, four men and a woman on this ship. The four men are the guards. The woman is, among other things, the nurse, cook, and stewardess. She basically does all the real work.
The thing is, they’re all pretty good characters, and the whole point of the book hinges on how they have to rely on each other to get out of the scrape they’re in. This, of course, doesn’t count the one who turns traitor about a quarter of the way into the novel, and is, from the first time we meet him, the obvious one to do it.
There’s Langley, formerly of the British Army. He’s in charge. He’s a no-nonsense, get-it-done sort of guy who worries that his unshakable self-control will be, well, shaken.
There’s Jacens, a Texan, also an Army man, who does his job quietly and efficiently. He and Langley get along well from the start. He’s working on a novel, which we learn at one point is just awful. Still, he’s a very sweet guy.
Colmar is arrogant and has a problem with authority. He does the bad thing. Also American.
Roscorla is a former Navy man. He’s irrepressably positive in everything. Cornish.
Jane is the woman. She was once engaged to be married, but her husband-to-be called it off after she was in a car accident that left her face horribly scarred. Generic English.
Their job is basically to keep an eye on things and fight off any potential pirates. The ship takes care of everything else. They’re hauling oil.
Everybody starts to get settled in, gets to know each other, and establish a routine. We learn quickly that Jane has a rough past, and while everybody tries to break through and help her overcome her shyness, it’s Jacens who manages to do so. They don’t exactly fall in love, but they do go to bed together and it’s very sweet.
So then, when everything goes FUBAR, it’s actually shocking.
I talked before about how stories that have real, understandable, lower stakes are ones that capture my attention better than ones where the entire world must be saved. This story is a prime example of the former. With the exception of Colmar, we want all of these characters to be happy and satisfied with their lives. So when Colmar turns traitor and pirates hijack the ship, it’s scary and powerful.
Jacens is killed almost immediately. Colmar shoots him in the back. Langley is also shot. He survives, but is taken out of the fight for most of the story. Roscorla is too scared to do anything. Jane is crushed by the fact that a man who accepted her for who she is is now dead. Everything looks bad.
The pirates start to take all the oil from the tanker. Colmar is just a terrible person, constantly ribbing Jane for being in love with a dead man, ordering her to fetch coffee and sandwiches for the pirates, and so forth. He’s not much better to Roscorla. The stewardess and the Navy man try to hatch a plan to save themselves, knowing that once the pirates are done with the ship, the two of them will be killed.
A storm starts to show up and makes the pirates get into a hurry. As Colmar is being helicoptered off of the tanker to one of the pirate ships, Jane manages to shoot him. Colmar pitches into the copter pilot, who in turn crashes the copter into the ocean.
This is about halfway through the book, right before the ad for True cigarettes.
“I’ve heard enough to make me decide one of two things: quit or smoke True. I smoke True.”
The rest of the book is basically bare survival. The pirates sabotaged the ship before the left, destroying the computer and planting bombs. The computer can’t be saved, but Roscorla manages to find and defuse the bombs before they go off. Since it’s just he and Jane running things while Langley recovers, they start to get a little closer, but Jane rebuffs him when he tries to get too close.
Back in England, folks have noticed that the ship has stopped transmitting. They send out search planes to the Indian Ocean to see if they can’t find it. They search around the ship’s planned course and don’t find anything, not even an oil slick showing that it sank. What they don’t know is that since the computer has been destroyed, the ship is heading in a straight line due south, ready to crash into Antarctica in about four days, assuming an iceberg doesn’t hit it first.
Once again the author shows that he really knows ships. D.F. Jones was a Navy man himself during World War II and his books like to focus on the sea and people on it. Note that this is the third book of his that I’ve read, and the second time I’ve read one without remembering that he also wrote Earth Has Been Found. I remembered Denver is Missing, since the front cover of this one calls that out. This book was written in between those two, with Earth Has Been Found coming right after this one by a few years. The Floating Zombie is much better than either of those books, lacking a lot of the toxic cynicism that the other two books seemed to steep in. It’s not that this was a particularly happy story, it’s just that institutional idiocy was downplayed in favor of real drama.
One thing worth complaining about is that for most of the second half of this book, there’s not much of anything the heroes can do. They sit around, slowly getting colder as they reach the Antarctic, and hope that somebody will find them. Roscorla is, as always, optimistic about their chances, and tries to keep the other two cheerful. The result is that they resent him for his upbeat attitude and tensions begin to mount ever higher.
There’s a powerful scene where the ship almost hits an iceberg. It towers over them, a testament to the unyielding might of nature. Hitting the thing at their speed (they’ve been stuck at twelve knots since the computer went out, which the book says is too fast) would destroy the ship utterly, but they miss it by bare yards.
At long last, the ship is sighted by an airplane and steps are taken to rescue the crew. Instead of just airlifting the three people off and letting the ship crash, like I would have done, the RAF takes all steps possible to restore control and get the ship safely to South Africa. There’s a lot of scary moments, but long story short, it works and everybody is saved.
Everybody gets a fair chunk of money for saving the ship and they all live happily ever after, maybe. Money can be weird sometimes.
So yeah, I can’t do a lot of credit to this book in review form because the real joy was in the details, and I’m not gonna just sit here and list all the tiny little moments I liked. I want to let you experience those for yourself. Give this book a looksie, if it sounds like your jam. I think it’s well worth it.
Sure, there are issues. The book telegraphs the coming treachery a little too hard. There are moments in the first chapters where the narration suddenly goes something like “They’d remember that comment later, and regret it.” The villain is waaaaay too obvious from the beginning, so obvious, in fact, that I was almost convinced he wouldn’t be the villain after all. A stronger story might well have featured Colmar being an arrogant asshole but having to put all that aside to save everybody else (or just himself and let everyone else be a bonus).
Jane turned out to be a tough, tough woman. She was, without question, the strongest character in the book. She’s a tragic figure, once beautiful but now scarred and terrified of people reactions to her mangled face. It’s a testament to Jacens that he was able to care about her in a way that didn’t come across as pushy or oversexed, and it makes it so much more tragic when he’s killed. It didn’t feel like a cheap death. It really made the story, and the characters in it, stronger.
On the other hand, a lot of what makes Jane look like a tough woman hinges more on the “woman” part than the “tough” part. I have to think about how to phrase this, and I’m probably going to make it sound stupid, but Jane’s main contributions to the story involved making coffee and sandwiches. But she did it in a tough way. It’s a weird dichotomy: she’s to be praised for keeping her head in a crisis and for not coming completely apart after tragedy strikes, but at the same time she shows that inner strength by being a tireless caregiver. That’s not a problem with the character, mind you. I admire the hell out of her. It’s a problem with how she’s written. Would it have been too much for the boys to make their own coffee every once in a while?
To be fair, she also shot Colmar to death and destroyed a helicopter in doing so, so she’s got that kind of toughness too.
To conclude: If you’ve seen this book floating around somewhere and gave it a pass because it has a goofy name and the premise sounds too far-fetched and you’ve read other D.F. Jones novels and weren’t impressed, give it another look.
3 thoughts on “The Floating Zombie”
The cover and the goofy title would prompt me to pick the book up. It looks like a promising horror novel. The synopsis would probably have me putting it back. Your review makes me wish there was an e-version. The book sounds pretty promising.
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The cover and the goofy title would prompt me to pick the book up. It looks like a promising horror novel. The synopsis would probably have me putting it back. Your review makes me wish there was an e-version. The book sounds pretty good.
I picked up “The Floating Zombie” because I had been impressed with the other books by Jones that I had read — namely the “Colossus” trilogy, as in “Colossus: The Forbin Project.” And I’ll agree, if you ignore what’s on the covers, it’s a pretty good story for what it is. It helps that, according to Wikipedia, Jones was “a naval commander during World War II and lived in Cornwall.” He does go to some lengths to make Roscorla distinctively Cornish as opposed to English — even down to Colmar saying “You mean there’s a difference?” It’s the only book of its type that I can recall that has a Cornishman as its protagonist, which adds a certain sort-of-exotic touch.
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