I have a few words to say about the book The Ruins, by Scott Smith. This is going to reveal a lot about the plot of the book, so if you plan on reading it, stop reading this. I picked it up because it received good reviews, it sounded exciting, and I needed something to get my mind off of work. Let me preface my review by linking to some other reviews (their rating of the book, if given, is in parentheses):
Steven King even gave it a good review – you can find it on the Amazon link, I believe. But having said all that, of course I didn’t like it. Here’s why.
Before I go any further, I’ll say that I value two parts of a book – 1) the story (plot), and 2) the way that story is presented (writing style/diction). So let’s do the story part first.
Part I: The Plot
It should have been called “The Dumbasses Get Stuck On A Hill With A Giant Killer Plant That Can Think.” The plot was outrageous. Four kids just out of college go to Mexico and meet up with some Greeks and a German. During the course of their inebriation and indiscriminate sex, they decide to help the German find his brother at some ruins. But this isn’t some cool Mayan temple ruin – it’s an abandoned mine shaft, which is hardly exciting. But the mine is on a hill, and the hill has a huge plant growing on it. This seems trivial at first, but it turns out that the plant is a murderer. And there are murderous Mayans surrounding the hill who won’t let them leave.
The kids are incredibly stupid. They bring more alcohol on a trek into the jungle than water (which may be realistic), but then they actually drink it once they realize that they’re trapped and need to conserve water. There’s a slutty girl and a whiny girl, and they both do what they do best. The Greek falls into the mine and breaks his back, and one of the stupid guys jumps down after him because he doesn’t want him to be there alone – surprise surprise, he then cuts his leg and the plant grows inside him.
But perhaps the worst part is that even though they’re stuck on a hill with a killer plant and murderous Mayans, no one comes up with an escape plan. MacGyver would’ve been off that hill in five minutes. They could create a diversion, fashion shields, explore the mine shaft which runs parallel to the ground (maybe there’s another exit, further away? we won’t know, because they never tried). Instead, they’re resigned to wait it out, drinking their own urine and resorting to cannibalism, and after two days (I think), they’re all dead. Pansies. Jeff is the only one who tries to escape, and he doesn’t have a plan – he tries to run, and that doesn’t work out too well.
Even though Jeff knows the plant can make sounds (which makes no sense, but we’ll go into that later), he chases a cellphone ring down into the mine, only to find out that the plant set a trap for him. It takes the characters an inordinate amount of time to figure anything out…it took them all about five minutes to understand that Jeff was suggesting cannibalism, and even longer before they found the plant could laugh at them. I frequently found myself figuring things out long before the characters did, and not because I was carefully analyzing clues.
The plant is ridiculous. It bleeds acid, it can chirp like a bird, it can see, it can hear, it can think (it even taunts the kids), it can talk (it can imitate voices as well as improvise), and it eats people. It can generate smells (with pheromones? who knows), which makes the kids even more hungry. It even takes down warning signs that people put up to prevent it from getting prey, and it steals shovels. The thing is, the Mayans have cleared all the foliage from the hill and salted the earth, so the vine is isolated. Jeff suggests that the Mayans don’t want the plant to reproduce, which is why they’ve trapped them on the hill (perhaps they have its spores on their clothes). But it’s covered in bright flowers…flowers need pollinators, and even birds, flies, and gnats have “learned” not to come near the hill, presumably after previous generations were eaten by the plant. It’s completely illogical for the plant to eat its pollinators. Jeff also suggests that the plant has become so advanced (so smart) through evolution, but things don’t evolve in one generation – there had to have been previous generations of the plant which allowed pollinators, and this plant would become extinct long ago if it had “learned” to eat its only means of reproduction. It grows in the mine too, and has flowers down there. It’s only “slightly paler” in the mine (though it would probably be colorless, not having a need for chlorophyll) and still has flowers – how many flowering cave plants have you seen? Bats make bad pollinators… Flowers even grow inside Eric. Now that’s a useful evolutionary ability (those flowers, needed for reproduction, would be useless when springing from internal tendrils). It can talk in a perfectly-replicated human voice (without vocal cords or a mouth), and it can see without eyes. I suppose it might not need to “see” to do the things it does, but its level of perception seems to be better than that of the moronic college grads.
When all is said and done, everyone’s dead. Jeff gets shot in the throat with an arrow. Amy gets choked to death by the plant; for some reason, it doesn’t just choke the others in their sleep (we’re supposed to believe that the plant is being malevolent, and purposely playing with its food). The Greek dies after they decide to amputate his legs, Mathias (the German) gets stabbed by Eric, and Eric cuts all his skin off trying to get the plant out of him. Then Stacy, the only one remaining, promptly decides to slit her wrists instead of even trying to escape. This might have been disappointing if any of the characters had been less annoying (Mathias isn’t so bad because he’s even more poorly-developed than the rest). But of course, no answers are given at the end of the novel about the plant or the Mayans. Smith couldn’t come up with a logical explanation and pins it on his readers to do so.
Though the basic story is absolutely ludicrous, the book is lauded for its examination of the relationship between the people and their situation, and it does achieve this (to an extent). Given the situation, the characters’ actions are perhaps quite realistic, but there are parts which are baffling even when the reader considers that people are, indeed, baffling. How a girl could muster up the resolve to become sexually aroused, given their dire situation, is beyond me. The depiction of their thoughts and the way each character internally handles the situation is, however, well-planned, even if Smith’s diction and storytelling leaves something to be desired…
…Which brings us to Part II of the review, to be released at a later date.
(vines image: noble foundation)