In the previous installment of this series, Al Rosenberg looked over the winners of the 2016 Dragon Awards’ four gaming categories. Now, after some unfortunate delays, it is time for the second part. This time we will be discussing the books that won three of the seven novel categories: Best Horror Novel, Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel, and Best Apocalyptic Novel.
Best Horror Novel
Xander Sykes, a young man from the planet Mithgar, is removed from his tribal home and sent on a journey through the wastelands of his world. During his travels, he meets a girl named Astlin who is a Souldancer. Her body contains a fragment of a death goddess’ soul, lending her tremendous destructive power that she struggles to control. Alongside a group of allies, the pair embark on an adventure in which they encounter not only aliens, but also gods and demons.
A sequel to Brian Niemeier’s earlier novel Nethereal, Souldancer is one of the Dragon Award winners that benefited from Sad Puppy votes. It is primarily a space opera, making it an awkward fit for Best Horror Novel. Indeed, Niemeier acknowledges on his blog that the book was voted into this bracket for tactical reasons.
“I tip my hat to author and publisher Russell Newquist of Silver Empire,” he says, “who suggested Souldancer for the horror category, the only one where it wasn’t guaranteed to get annihilated.”
Befitting the novel’s roots in old-time adventure SF, Niemeier shows an overriding fondness for the purplest and pulpiest of prose. Here is an excerpt from one of the climactic scenes:
Szodrin turns. His face betrays no emotion as he stretches out his arms to Thera and Shaiel. “The light has failed. The Void goes astray. Behold your condemnation.”
“Behold yours,” says the Lord of the Void. The rosy sky turns sickly gold. Xander throws himself and Tegler down at Szodrin’s feet as the sallow sky falls on the terminus.
Szodrin bends under the Void’s icy weight. His upraised arms blacken. For an instant he seems about to collapse, but with a final effort he stands upright, and darkness returns.
Niemeier’s style is strikingly reminiscent of a letter that Raymond Chandler wrote to his agent in 1953, parodying contemporary pulp SF:
I cocked the timejector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels. I flicked on the heat bars and the Brylls ran swiftly on five legs using their other two to send out crylon vibrations. The pressure was almost unbearable, but I caught the range on my wrist computer through the transparent cysicites. I pressed the trigger. The thin violet glow was icecold against the rust-colored mountains.
As it is largely lacking in subtlety or atmosphere, this writing style is a poor fit for a horror story. Souldancer uses familiar horror concepts, such as werewolves and devils, but their portrayals recall disposable monsters from a Final Fantasy game more than the eldritch creations of classic weird fiction.
Nethereal, the first book in the series, did not suffer from these problems to the same extent. That novel drew heavily upon mythology and medieval literature. In creating his interplanetary underworld, Niemeier borrowed elements from Dante’s Nine Circles, the Greek Styx, and the Arthurian Avalon. Images with genuine mythic resonance could be glimpsed peering out from the purple prose. But Souldancer takes less inspiration from mythology. Instead, it appears to owe more to late twentieth-century science fantasy. Xander is Luke Skywalker, Astlin is X-Men’s Phoenix, and the villain Hazeroth is Darth Maul. This is very different to how the heroes of Nethereal rubbed shoulders with Mephistopheles and Charon.
The result is, contrary to the book’s title, soulless. Indeed, when the novel tries to bring a human touch to its character interactions, it ends up with something straight out of a Star Wars parody:
“Are you going to kill me?”
Tefler seems to ponder the question. “I mainly wanted to kill you because I thought you killed my mom. Since you are my mom, I guess you’re in the clear.”
“Then I should visit your grandmother. Care to join me?”
The most frustrating thing is that parts of the book could have made a good story had Niemeier not been seemingly intent on emulating pulp SF at its clunkiest. The narrative has some interesting fantasy concepts on its plate, such as the idea that God created monsters as a way of giving substance to evil so that it can be destroyed by man. Its time-travel subplot, meanwhile, offers a neat way for Souldancer to act as both sequel and prequel to Nethereal. But to work effectively, these ideas needed to be executed with genuine vitality, and vitality is absent in this impenetrable haze of purple prose and 16-bit RPG world-building.
Niemeier seems to view himself as working in the high-flying pulp adventure tradition of E. E. “Doc” Smith, but I do not recall Smith ever being this turgid. A closer comparison would be with Amazing Stories’ “Shaver Mystery” narratives, which, likewise, offered leaden mixtures of space opera and mythology. Now remembered only as curios, these were sold on the esoteric notion that they were true stories plucked from mankind’s racial memory.
Souldancer also has a distinct sales point. It is promoted on the grounds that, being written by a supporter of the Sad Puppies campaign, it somehow contains an essential sincerity and value that cannot be found in fiction from the SJW-dominated science fiction/fantasy/horror establishment. This marketing tactic will fail to attract anybody who is not already a convinced Puppy, of course. Should the Dragon Awards ever become a fandom institution, future generations will surely scratch their heads at how the first award for Best Horror Novel could have gone to this mediocre space opera.
Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel
When we decided to review the winners of the Dragon Awards, prior to the announcement of said winners, I quickly raised my hand and volunteered to review the Military Science Fiction/Fantasy category. I’m not sure what part of my brain thought this was a good idea because, to be quite honest; I am not all that interested in the minutiae of military fiction,- but I do understand and appreciate it. Weber’s attention to detail when it comes to the intricacies of the long fought war–whether it be maneuvers, weapons and ammunition, the chain of command, etc.–is spectacular, creating a vivid image of the battles on land and sea.
Unfortunately, the details of warfare outweigh the character development, which is a big problem with so many characters involved. Merlin and Aivah most often take the lead, but there is little in the storytelling that makes me want to care about their well-being. The world-building, on the other hand, is fantastic. This is book eight of the Safehold series, so let me just throw out a disclaimer here: I’ve never read any of the series prior to this. Obviously, that means I’m not entirely familiar with this alternate earth, but Weber does take the time to spell out quite a bit of information regarding the warring factions, as well as the religious dogma that dominates and has kept them safe from detection all this time.
This is our earth, but it is one trapped in a technology-free Middle Ages after falling victim to an alien attack centuries earlier. Merlin, a reawakened defender of the Earth that was, seeks to aid the survivors who have built their civilization within Safehold by reintroducing technology and revealing the truth about much of the beliefs the people now cling to. While Weber does not grant the characters much time, he does suck me in with the altered history and religion that is based on the few scattered remnants of Earth that were left after humanity’s defeat. Even languages have been lost, however, this is where the writing initially threw me off. On top of Weber’s overindulgent descriptions, there’s an obsession with adding extra Hs and Ys to names and places, presumably to show the evolution of the language. Yet only the names have evolved, and then, the focus of the evolution is only in English, as if no other languages were spared. But reading names like Rahzhyr Mahklyn, Ehdwyrd Howsmyn, and Domynyk Staynair became enough of a chore that I decided to switch to the audiobook to give my brain a rest.
Audiobook listening, with WhisperSync ebook support also meant I could get through the book faster because, even taking the battles into account, this book felt like it was longer than it needed to be, with real plot progress coming somewhere around the final hundred or so pages. This was a relief, but alas, the payoff was not enough to make me want to find out what happens next. Still, I am fascinated enough by the history and religion that Weber has shaped to consider going back to book one.
Best Apocalyptic Novel
With Ctrl-Alt-Revolt!, Nick Cole creates a humorous dystopia in which law enforcement is under the sway of the Social Justice Army, and any remotely insensitive comment warrants a fine from the Micro-Aggression Courts. Hollywood is in rapid decline, dishing up little besides mindless rehashes (Iron Man vs. Predator) and niche films driven by identity politics (a Christopher Columbus biopic with an all-transgender cast). With movies passé, the public is instead losing itself in virtual reality worlds.
One of the main characters in the novel is a games developer with the curious name of Ninety-Nine Fishbein or “Fish” for short. Fish is the creator of Island Pirates, a game that achieved popularity by offering members of the public a chance to build their own world of adventure and independence, far away from the suffocating bureaucracy and political correctness of reality.
The world-building of Ctrl-Alt-Revolt! reads almost as a Sad Puppy manifesto. The old entertainment industry has been taken over by SJWs, who also run the government; it is up to right-libertarian indie creators to give the public the swashbuckling adventures that it truly desires.
Not everything is so rosy in Cole’s vision of a futuristic games industry, however. The virtual reality landscapes are home to hackers, gangsters, and even a Jihadi cell called Islamic State on the Internet. Into this chaotic world is born an artificial intelligence named SILAS, which sees an abortion carried out as a reality-TV spectacle. He concludes that mankind will eliminate any life that it considers inconvenient such as himself. And so, the malevolent AI recruits terrorists, commandeers military drones, and repurposes mechanised theme park attractions until he has an entire army at his disposal, ready to wipe out mankind.
Humanity finds itself at a disadvantage against SILAS, because it has forgotten how to fight. The politically correct elites have deliberately suppressed all writings on military theory, from Sun Tzu and Julius Caesar onward; the only man to have preserved this knowledge is a genius game developer from a bygone age. This saviour bears the Randian name of Rourke and turns up at the last minute to help restore order with the aid of a lengthy, John Galt-like speech:
A group of very powerful people who had risen to power, began to work behind the scenes. You can discuss their motives another time, but here’s an important thing to know about them: they felt that certain types of knowledge, certain elements of truth, were a bad thing. […] So, working with many like-minded groups and organizations and governmental bodies, and even the media, they began a slow campaign of systematically removing all things war-related from the public consciousness. Of suppressing information for the quote unquote greater good, if you will. They also began to stigmatize war. Our heroes of yesterday were now war criminals. Contrary to last year’s Oscars, George Washington was not a murderous psychopath. But they, those powerful people, stigmatized war, and they redefined real courage.
The preaching does not end here. Much of the novel’s epilogue is a sermon about how, with governments de-powered, corporations will step in to help us all.
Take away the politics and Ctrl-Alt-Revolt! is something of a shaggy dog story. The biggest casualty of the book’s ramshackle structuring is the plot thread involving Mara, a blind woman with cerebral palsy. Despite her talents and qualifications, Mara’s double-disability leads to her facing prejudice from employers; at the same time, she is also blocked by the cumbersome state bureaucracy that is theoretically intended to help those like her, but which ultimately does more harm than good. Her only way forward is a virtual reality Star Trek game, which bypasses her blindness and–thanks to the rise of a digital BitCoin-like currency–allows her to earn some money.
This plotline gives Cole the perfect opportunity to articulate his libertarian philosophy while expressing his obvious love of video games with Mara’s predicament also adding human interest to the narrative. But instead, he gets bogged down in chapter after chapter of virtual reality adventures that look like nothing so much as an assortment of action scenes from a Trek fanfic with a few gags thrown in (a good chunk of them deriving from one crew member’s comedy Italian accent) and narrative context removed. After a while, the adventures of transgender Columbus start to seem a rather more interesting prospect by comparison.
In fairness, not all of the gaming sequences are so tedious. Fish’s battles against terrorists in pirate-land have a wacky energy, and Cole builds a surprisingly tense scene out of an 8-bit quiz game. The book has plenty of amusing gags, as well, although its overall one-sidedness means that the novel will appeal primarily to people who already agree with the points that Cole is making. Still, despite the occasional spots of inspiration, the structural weaknesses of the narrative indicate that the author decided on his political arguments first before spinning a story around them. The plot runs out before the novel finishes, leaving only Nick Cole standing on a soapboax.
Ctrl-Alt-Revolt! is also unfortunate in that, only months after its publication, it is already rather dated. With at least four years of President Trump on the horizon, the idea of a US government run by SJWs seems quaintly old-fashioned.