When this was initially announced I was in two minds about it. On the one hand I've always enjoyed Dean Foster's film tie-ins, his ones for Star Wars and Alien are fantastic and his rumoured (till-this-day-denied) work on the Star Trek: The Motion Picture novelisation is good as well despite the focus on Kirk's genitals.
But on the other side of the coin, every officially published Transformers novel to date has been crap. Even most of the short stories in the UK Annuals were -- with a few honourable exceptions (mainly State Games) -- also crap.
Any remaining optimism was quashed when the scathing SFX review revealed that the book had originally been written by David Cian and had been considered so awful by the publishers that they'd handed it to Foster to rewrite. So I passed when the novel first came out, and only picked it up when it was dirt cheap from a remedial bookshop on the day of a long train journey. Was it worth the wait? Did it defy expectations to turn out to be a good book? Well put it like this, for the amount of time I was on the train I would normally get through about a 100 pages of a paperback. I barely managed 50 of this due to its sheer awfulness, and it was weeks before I picked it up again... then only because I'd previously agreed to review it for this site.
The plot follows three strands: the moving of Megatron from Canada to the Hoover Dam, the launch of a experimental reverse engineered spaceship to look for Ice Man's relatives, and the Autobots and Decepticons fighting in orbit around the planet where that ship ends up. All in the Summer of 1969 as Apollo 11 heads for the moon.
The first plot strand does conflict with what we're told in the film where Megatron was put in the Dam during its 1930's construction, but we'll let that off as a slip-up caused by changing drafts of the film script. What I can't ignore is the extremely stock characterisation of the Sector 7 soldiers. There's the grizzled old veteran, the young inexperienced one and a handful of others so one-dimensional you can't see them when they turn sideways. The fact that no one notices when the driver of the convoy is replaced by a Russian agent shows they don't even stand out to each other, let alone the reader.
The dullness of Sector 7 has been a problem across all the spin off media (it would seem the actors added a great deal of their charm in the Movie), but this sorry bunch are sub- Tom Clancy. It doesn't help that when the evil Russians show up their one speaking representative is clichéd to the point of being a whisker away from asking for Vodka.
I doesn't help that Foster doesn't seem very interested in the action of a action book. A pitched battle between American and Russian soldiers in the Arctic as Megatron slowly awakens is suitably Bondian, but comes over as drab and faux macho. And, after being told for the preceding two hundred pages of the dangers of Megatron waking up and how they'd never be able to freeze him again, is completely undermined by the plot being resolved by Old Grizzled and Generic Other blowing themselves and some **** up to freeze him again.
The outer space strand is even worse. The spaceship Ghost is launched because Sector 7 is worried about the other "Ice Men" being around Jupiter and ready to invade. This is despite the fact they have no evidence of Ice Men having been near Earth for millions of years. It genuinely doesn't occur to anyone that perhaps some of this advanced technology could be instead used to win the space race against their current real world foes.
Once we get inside the ship things get worse when we find a woman astronaut there. The idea of America sending a woman into space in 1969 is actually more stupid than anything else in the book (one has to hope they've at least adjusted the suit for her, one of the official excuses for no female astronauts till the 80's is that the spacesuits NASA used weren't suitable for female anatomy.) Having introduced such a anomaly the book then completely fails to do anything with it. The "woman soldier fighting against sexism" thing would have been a cliché, but also true to the time. Instead, if you were to skip the paragraph that mentioned her sex you'd be hard pressed to notice there was a woman on the crew at all.
And that's a big part of the problem, the humans in space are as forgetable as the ones on the ground. The confident one, the scared one, the female one and the other one make up the crew and that's about all we ever learn about them.
They're also insanely stupid, first in trusting Starscream when he pretends to be nice despite doing all but holding a sign saying "I AM TEH EVILLLLS"; secondly in their bizarre decision to make a Kamikaze attack on the Seeker at the end of the book. This is due to the Captain having decided the transformers will come to Earth anyway at some point and thus they must show their strength to the Decepticons (and their self-sacrifice and friendship to the Autobots.) It never occurs to him that -- if the Transformers are coming anyway -- that giving a full report to his superiors to warn them is by far a more important thing to do.
With the two human strands so dull, that leaves the aliens and this is where the book really falls down. Description of the Transformers is virtually non-existent; you can read this book without learning Prime has a faceplate, what colour Bumblebee is or what all their Protoform modes look like. Some random alien monsters that Prime saves the Ghost crew from get more description. As far as characterisation goes, all the Autobot lines are interchangeable to the point it's hard to tell who's who.
The Decepticons actually get the best deal of the book. Starscream may be unsubtle in his dealings with the humans, but the way he manipulates his comrades into accepting his leadership and attempts to stop them finding out the human ship uses technology from their missing leader is surprisingly intelligent compared to most other representations of the character. It also helps that -- unlike the Autobots -- his crew aren't sheep. They ask questions, challenge him and all have a unique viewpoint. The scenes on the Nemesis (and yes, the Autobot ship is the Ark, no originality here) are the highlight of the book.
It's not enough to salvage it though... by novel's end the three plot strands have all died a sorry death (with only two of them interacting properly) and leave you not caring about any of them. If you were to do as the back cover advises and read this before seeing the film you'd never go near the DVD. The grand tradition of crap Transformers novels continues.