Friday, September 3, 2010

Gears of War: Aspho Fields, by Karen Traviss

Reviewed by Nader Elhefnawy

Originally published in STRANGE HORIZONS, June 2, 2010

I am sure that some of Strange Horizons' readers are surprised to find a review of a book based on a video game here. Gaming, and its media spin-offs, remain far behind comics and graphic novels (as of late, winning some grudging respect from nonfans) in winning critical respectability, and this web site's reviews list has generally reflected this fact to date.

Nonetheless, Gears of War: Aspho Fields is far from being the first novelization of a video game; I remember reading some of Scholastic Books' Worlds of Power series of Nintendo Entertainment System game novelizations back in the early 1990s. Like the games that inspired them, the novelizations have grown more ambitious than those strictly-for-kids efforts. My edition of Aspho Fields is a 384-page trade paperback, rather than a slim mass-market paperback of the kind typically associated with such projects. The author, Karen Traviss (who was interviewed by Cheryl Morgan for Strange Horizons back in 2006), has not only penned best sellers set in the Star Wars universe, but achieved a measure of success on her own with the well-received City of Pearl (a 2005 Campbell Award nominee) and its sequels.

Aspho Fields (the first volume in a projected trilogy) is also meant to be part of the Gears of War canon. Its "present day" is the interval between the two games produced to date (Gears of War 2 came out shortly after this book), although it includes flashbacks to events that took place prior to the first game. For that reason a word about the games is in order here, for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the series.

The Gears of War story is set on the planet Sera, the human inhabitants of which have built up an industrial civilization approximating our level of development (with assorted near-future touches). However, life was permanently changed by the emergence of the Locust Horde that brought civilization crashing down. What remains of human civilization, headed by the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) that existed prior to the collapse, and now the only remaining human organization of significance, is fighting for its life against the Locusts.

The first game is set fourteen years after the "Emergence Day" (also known as "E-Day") on which the Locusts first appeared. Marcus Fenix, the game's principal character, has been sitting in a military prison for four years at this point, when he is sprung by his longtime friend and fellow "Gear" (the term referring to the world's elite soldiery), Dominic "Dom" Santiago, who takes him to meet the rest of Delta Squad. Now back in uniform, he joins his cohorts in a series of missions that culminate in their delivering the "Lightmass Bomb" that destroys the underground tunnels in which the Locusts live in the hope that this will end the war once and for all.

Aspho Fields picks up the story in the aftermath of the Bomb's detonation, when Locusts seem much thinner on the ground, and a few people are starting to seriously believe they can begin rebuilding the world they lost—while others are seeing signs that the war may not be over yet. However, most of the book is devoted not to the conflict ahead, but one that went on before E-Day. The Pendulum Wars, which was referenced but not really explained during the game, was an eighty-year conflict between COG and its then rival, the Union of Independent Republics (UIR), the other political division of humanity on Sera, waged over energy resources (specifically, the Imulsion fluid players know from the games). In the conflict's last stage the UIR was working on a potentially war-winning weapon, the space-based "Hammer of Dawn."

After learning about the Hammer's existence, and fearing its implications, the COG staged a massive raid on the research facility (located at the titular Aspho Fields) where the weapon was being developed, in an engagement that is actually referenced in the first game's opening cut scene. Marcus and Dominic were both participants, as was Dominic's older brother Carlos, who didn't survive that battle. The particulars are a secret Marcus has kept from Dom in the years since then, only now dredged up by the unexpected return of an old friend and comrade, Bernadette "Bernie" Mataki, who had witnessed the event when she fought alongside them in the same battle.

This means, of course, that much of the story is set before the battle with the Locusts that is the focus of the games. Naturally that raises the question of whether this is something fans (and others) truly want to read.

It is certainly true that on the level of storytelling, games have become much more sophisticated during the last three decades. I still remember being impressed by the first cut scenes, and role-playing games in which you spent the vast bulk of the time engaged in random battles to build up experience and amass the money to buy better weapons and armor, all the way back in the eight-bit era—well before many of today's gamers were born. Today the standard for storytelling and worldbuilding is set by the likes of Mass Effect. Games have even become more sophisticated in literary technique; Bioshock, for instance, is a satire of Ayn Rand's writings.

However, Gears of War, despite some spectacular and very well-executed cut scenes, is not quite on that level narratively. While the sequel hints that there may be more to this saga, as for Aspho Fields, this is still your basic tale of outnumbered elite armored infantry battling hordes of inhuman, insect-like species in a Darwinian struggle for survival of the sort we've seen waged on a routine basis since at least Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers a half century ago. The game's big novelty is its chainsaw bayonets, but alas, that is the sort of thing much more effective at carrying a game than a novel, which will have to offer something more.

Traviss's attempt to do just that has its strengths and weaknesses. As far as the former go, I was pleasantly surprised that the hacky, clunky, driveling writing so common to novelizations (and indeed, far too much popular fiction) is rare here. The prose is unspectacular, and a premium on accessibility is evident, but with few exceptions it is also lucid and lean, appropriate to the laconic, stripped-down world of the game. (The biggest exception I can think of was the unnecessary repetition of a few key points through the story, in particular the description of the troubles the humans had preserving the technological base that kept their war machines running, or the traits of this or that character. I also wonder what American readers will make of the assorted "British-isms"—"posh," "smart," "tosser," etc.—mixed in with the otherwise all-American grunt-speak and grunt-think.)

On the other hand, iconic as Marcus and Dom may be, they are still fairly stereotypical tough-guy commandos. (This is so much the case that it is a source of unintentional humor for some fans all over the Web, a good example of which is the "Zero Punctuation" review of Gears of War 2 that ran in The Escapist magazine.) To her credit, Traviss takes the trouble to give Marcus and Dom pasts, families, conflicts, and baggage (generally building on material the games already offer), to give them a touch of thoughtfulness or vulnerability, but they still come across as two-dimensional characters that first-person-shooter fans can step into at will. The secret between them, when revealed, struck me as far less significant for our understanding of Marcus and Dom, or their friendship, than the blurb on the back cover of my edition promised, lacking as it does the kind of doubt or dilemma that would have made for complex and compelling character drama. Frankly, I found it less interesting than the comparatively minor subplot regarding the reasons for Marcus's court-martial offense, and his dealings with his superior, Colonel Victor Hoffman, the officer who earlier abandoned him to die in his prison. However, the book does not go very deeply into this either, certainly not telling us much more about what happened then than we already knew.

In short, really fundamental conflicts among the characters are absent, a problem exacerbated by their unanimity in a simplistic and severe view of life (of exactly the kind that cultural critics looking at the postapocalyptic and military science fiction genres often find creepy). Not unrelatedly, the book overlooks some interesting possibilities for deepening the portrayal of the world and its inhabitants. While much of the book depicts events that transpired before E-Day, those who want to see something of the world beyond the barracks and the battlefield will be let down. The same goes for those who want to know about the Pendulum Wars; the sections of the book about it are standard military procedural, just contemporary techno-thriller writing with the names changed, down to the armored personnel carriers and helicopters in which our heroes get around. The juxtaposition of a sharper image of the war-torn world that existed before E-Day with its aftermath (after all, the characters did not go from peace to war so much as trade one kind of war for another kind of war) is a significant missed opportunity. Much more could also have been done with the divisions among the COG, its ethnocultural splits and class divisions, and the other divide between its members and the "Stranded" humans living outside its authority. (In most cases, only an epigram at the start of a chapter affords the tale any nuance.)

The result is that Traviss offers a surprisingly lightweight drama against a thinly sketched backdrop. The result is likely to satisfy game fans for whom any writing about this universe will have an intrinsic interest, and who may be happy to see any elaboration of the characters and world, however limited. It may also entertain military science fiction fans content with a brisk, pulpy read. However, those expecting to finally see a video-game-based novel as good as any other print science fiction will be let down. Nonetheless, given the hints of surprises to come in the franchise's future in Gears of War 2, it is possible future installments in the series will prove more satisfying.

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