Tuesday 7 September 2010

Book Review: Dead Space Martyr by Brian K. Evenson

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"We have seen the future: a universe cursed with life after death.

"It all started deep beneath the Yucatan peninsula, where an archaeological discovery took us into a new age, bringing us face-to-face with our origins and destiny.

"Michael Altman had a theory no one would hear. It cursed our world for centuries to come.

"This, at last, is his story."


There's been a lot of talk about the viability of shared worlds recently. On the one hand, after decades of marginalisation such that print magazines have established an historical tradition of ignoring franchise fiction, tie-ins and brand adaptations have become increasingly visible of late. Much less quote unquote "fringe," I would argue (from, admittedly, my position on the fringes of such fonts of literary criticism). It's difficult to quantify exactly why the tides have turned so dramatically, insofar as perception is notoriously difficult to measure, but they certainly have: for all the proof that particular pudding might have needed, see the winner of this year's David Gemmell Legend award, a Black Library novel by Graham McNeill.

Shared worlds are more viable, commercially if not yet critically, than ever before. In light of McNeill's Warhammer novel triumphing over such supposed genre favourites as Joe Abercrombie, Brandon Sanderson, previous winner Pierre Pevel, and the late, lamented Robert Jordan's last turn on The Wheel of Time, things might be on the up in those terms too. In any event, these days, it's not altogether uncommon to hear of notable authors lending their talents to tie-in fiction, and the candidates range far and wide. Michael Moorcock will write a Doctor Who novel; Neil Gaiman just handed in a script for an episode of the cult British show proper. Renowned sci-fi bestseller Greg Bear has a trilogy based on the Halo video games and indeed the pre-existing fiction to have come from that franchise forthcoming. Then there's Predator: South China Seas, by experimental auteur Jeff VanderMeer, and Dead Space: Martyr, the latest tie-in set to explode the perception of its mode of storytelling as an avenue of hack trash.

And why not? A good story's a good story, right? Given a capable author's hand, that's a truth no genre fan would dare dispute, and Brian Evenson is nothing if not capable. The crossover author has, as B. K. Evenson, dabbled in shared worlds before, with Aliens: No Exit and "Pariah," a short story in last year's Halo anthology. As I understand it, however, he came to fame as a former Mormon whose controversial debut, Altmann's Tongue, rather set the cat among the pigeons among the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Evenson's literary work has since seen comparisons to the likes of Borges, Ballard and Burroughs. His genre fiction, too, has been notable: Last Days took home the ALA/RUSA for Best Horror Novel of 2009, and before even that, The Open Curtain came near enough to the Edgar and the Shirley Jackson. Following in those footsteps, Dead Space: Martyr looked for all intents and purposes like another jewel in the shared worlds crown.

No such luck.

It's not the fiction's fault. All told, the Dead Space lore is rich - scriptwriters including Warren Ellis and Antony Johnston saw to that - if, admittedly, rather derivative. In the original game, space carpenter Isaac found himself the lone hope for humanity on a ship carrying a powerful religious artifact which just so happened to transform men into monsters. Horrifically deformed monsters, rendered from flesh and blood and bone, come to that, and virtually unstoppable. Cue a bunch of creepy spaceship exploration, in which ominous nuggets of the backstory (an effective enough riff on Scientology) were dispensed like collectible Pez, and tonnes of nasty fun in the form of "strategic dismemberment." EA went whole hog with the cross-media promotion, too, with a comic book, an animated movie, an ARG and an underrated on-rails shooter for the Wii in the form of Dead Space: Extraction. Isaac, we came to understand, wasn't really the crux of the overarching Dead Space fiction: it was all about The Marker, a monolith equivalent. And in Dead Space: Martyr, we learn at last how the Marker was discovered... how the spread of Unitology under its fallen messiah Michael Altman came to spell an apocalypse.

It's just a shame the revelations so pivotal to the greater fiction are made with such nonchalance. Evenson has a good story, the means to tell it well, and a shared world more potent than most of the puny excuses for space marines to shoot monsters video games are guilty of purveying. Yet Dead Space: Martyr is a onerous experience. Evenson makes nothing of Altman's pivotal narrative, engages not at all with neither the significance nor the weight of the events he's chosen to recount. Altman's journey from curious scientist to Unitology Godhead feels rote and distant. Those other characters in Dead Space: Martyr are never more than caricatures, and though the action (almost all of which is clumped together in the last quarter) is exciting enough, it too suffers from the sense that Evenson is merely going through the motions. He's played the game, evidently - I'll give the man that: when the Marker finally makes its move, the ensuing horror feels like a blow-by-blow description of similar such scenes in the original game. It's authentic, yes, but stirring? Not at all.

Dead Space: Martyr is a far cry from the worst tie-in literature I've read. Evenson does a credible job of taking us from point A to point B, and the trip's not long, nor, from time to time, without its highlights. Unfortunately, for the larger part, Dead Space: Martyr has little to recommend it. Evenson's well-documented storytelling knack is here in workmanlike form. As shared worlds fiction comes, it could be been - should have been - another home run. In fact, Dead Space: Matyr is unremarkable at best.


Dead Space: Martyr
by B. K. Evenson
July 2010, Tor US

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  1. Well dang. Any amazing revelations that would warrant a read anyway? Would reading Martyr make me any more excited for the sequel game to hit shelves next year, or would it just make me grumpy? As a huge fan of the series, I may have to try it out anyway, but thanks for the fair warning.

  2. Have you read the Dragon Age novels by game writer David Gaider? I know they can't be great, but have they something to recommend them? I'm undecided about the game franchise itself (the first game I found so-so), but since it looks it will be expanded in many larger and smaller installments for many years to come (for example, DA2 will tell a completely different story than DA1, instead of just continuing and concluding it), it might be interesting to know if a demanding genre critic sees any potential in the lead writer.