Cathy Hapka,
Lost: Endangered Species
(Hyperion, 2005)

Near the end of the first season of Lost, a grouchy minor character by the name of Arzt berates one of the major plane-crash surviving castaways on the mysterious island around which the series centers with words to the effect that "You (major characters) think everything's about you, but I'm here to tell you that there are 30 other survivors and we're all important, too." Moments later, Arzt dies in one of the uber-cool show's most grisly/comedic turns, but the philosophy behind his penultimate words lives on in a series of paperback originals that explores what's going on with some of those other minor characters. You sorta know them -- they're the schlubs that you see milling about in the background now and then while the televised adventures continue to focus on Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Hurley, Locke and the other A-list stars who draw in the viewers.

Media tie-ins such as the Lost books always run the risk of being self-defeating gestures to the generally few fans obsessed enough with a TV or movie series to add everything in print that's related to it to their collections. On the one hand, it's not that hard for a reasonably talented writer to come up with a quick new plot when the characters, settings and episodic formula for the series are already so well established on screen. On the other hand, the author cannot do anything so original with the main characters that their actions in the books could ever conflict with the canon of the more important broadcast series. This is why Spock, for example, never throttled McCoy to death with his tricorder straps in any of the thousands of Star Trek novels that have been churned out over the years.

Hence, the Lost book series' choice of zeroing in on what have so far been nameless, dialogueless characters on the island (despite only showing the stars on the book covers) -- who will in all likelihood never be worked into the actual show anyway -- is not a bad one on the face of it. But judging by the results of the first book, a bit more effort will be needed in future volumes to keep this series afloat.

One problem is that Lost: Endangered Species starts off exactly like the first episode of the show, wasting too much time showing us what Faith, the graduate student biologist upon whom the book concentrates, is doing in the first 24 hours after the plane crash. This tactic doesn't reveal anything useful about the world of Lost to anyone who isn't already quite familiar with the show, so why bother when only big fans are likely to spend $5.99 on such flimsy tomes (this one clocks in at only 195 pages)? Sure, it's kinda fun to see Faith, a rather drab personality, interact a bit with the star characters on the beach as they begin their prolonged stay on the island.

Writer Cathy Hapka has a particularly good feel for the young character of Walt, but won't win any fans with her descriptions of Kate. However, the author literally has trouble getting Faith off the beach and into the jungle long enough for the important events of the island-based part of the plot to finally get under way -- we are 136 pages into the story before she takes that step.

Still, the tried-and-true habit of the TV episodes to intersperse the island action with flashbacks that reveal why a focal character was on Oceanic Flight 815, and what secrets they are withholding from their fellow survivors, adds just enough pulp to this pulp fiction to make the read a worthwhile one for, say, a plane trip across the Pacific in perfect weather. Like some of the more familiar Lost characters, Faith is on the run from something in her past (the very immediate past, in her case) and her experiences on the island put a new perspective on both what we learn from the flashbacks and on what she might make of her new and risk-filled life among strangers.

It's too bad that Faith, who with some TLC could develop into a nice repeat character for the series but who may or may not reappear in future books, is saddled with some really annoying guys, both in her past and present plotlines, for the majority of her human interactions. In the past, there's Oscar, a one-dimensional environmental activist who gloms onto Faith for some fairly predictable nefarious purposes concerning Faith's faculty adviser, who has upset "Friends of the Earth" types by attempting to compromise with a generic Evil Corporation on an ecosystem-destroying project. In the present, there's George, a dope of a real estate developer and nature-hater who threatens to also be a cardboard-cutout character and who needs lots of too-convenient-to-be-realistic help from Faith to tell harmless snakes from deadly ones, but who in the end shows a little more depth than Oscar. These guys, generally shallow as they are, serve as the sounding board for Faith's deep love of nature in the parallel plots, and it is this love that drives her encounters with the island's more supernatural/science-fictional side, represented here by a supposedly extinct type of bird that she keeps spotting -- or perhaps only thinks she's spotting.

Speaking of love, another problem is that, although not marketed as such, the book is written on a young-adult reader level that avoids any of the truly adult material that permeates the show. For instance, Faith's relationship with Oscar has to have been somewhere significantly past the hand-holding stage, but the only glimpses we ever get about her feelings for him tend along the lines of I guess he really does care about me and Think with your head, not with your heart. And then the one significant moment of violence in the book is radically dampened by the author's apparent choice to be inconclusive regarding its results -- fatal or not? -- and by Faith's muted reactions to it. This kind of After-School Special sappiness cheats the reader of any real emotional impact when Faith has to eventually make a life-altering decision after Oscar's true nature is revealed. Perhaps the trouble is that, while Hapka has also written an Alias tie-in, she has far more experience as a children's author with a number of Disney-related products to her credit, among other publications for the younger crowd.

As with the typical endings of the Lost TV episodes, it appears that there's supposed to be some kind of life lesson that Faith has learned by the end of this book. Whatever it was, it was a very opaque one that I suspect only the author fully understood. But that is sometimes the case with the TV series itself -- you never get the whole story from any particular episode and the most seemingly trivial things from one night can have major consequences on another night -- so if Hapka or some other author gets back to Faith in the future, perhaps this first look into her past will pay off in a bigger way.

Meanwhile, I wonder what's up with those crazy castaways on the tube this week? Oh man, not another repeat!?

by Gary Cramer
25 February 2006

Buy it from