Monday, October 24, 2011

B.K. Evenson's Dead Space: Martyr - Review

Dead Space: MartyrDead Space: Martyr by B.K. Evenson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

[Warning! This review contains major story spoilers. For the review with spoilers hidden, click here.]

I'm a big fan of the Dead Space franchise and the backstory that the games have set up in Dead Space, Dead Space 2 and Dead Space: Extraction. There's a wealth of other media, too - a comic series, a graphic novel, two animated movies, an iOS game, and a Live Arcade/PSN downloadable game. The quality really lurches all over the place when it comes to the 'extended universe'. I really enjoyed the original comic, but hate both animated features with a passion, for example.

I was intrigued, then, by Dead Space: Martyr. It promised to go into the origins of the Church of Unitology, the religion at the heart of much of what goes on in the Dead Space games. The Unitologists worship divine "Markers", relics they belief can grant them eternal life, together - the unity in their name. In the games, Michael Altman is viewed as the founder of their Church, with "Praise Altman" being a familiar refrain. Martyr shows he wasn't exactly a willing prophet, looking at how he was one of the researchers who discovered the original Black Marker's signal at the centre of a crater in South America.

What you get is a story that, while interesting, often seems poorly or just carelessly written. It's hard to feel Brian Evenson had any investment in the franchise or its characters, even though at times he manages to pull together some compelling sequences - particularly when looking at the effects of the Marker on the psyches of the researchers and military personnel working with it. More than one character succumbs to madness and hallucinations, and he usually handles those sections with aplomb. Other parts of the book seem perfunctory at best, with one chapter describing the secret half-underwater floating research facility they bring in to raise the Marker from the bottom of its sunken crater being particularly bad. Even hanging a lantern on it as being like a 'sci-fi novel' doesn't really excuse it.

Going back to the characters, well, it's a really mixed bag - but nothing in the bag is very good. Altman himself is neither likeable nor offensive, being something of a non-entity going through the motions of researching the Marker and dealing with the consequences of interacting with it. Other characters are generally quite shallow, either being killed off soon after their introduction, or lingering on to demonstrate just how bad they are - the cartoonishly villainous Markoff and his torture-happy subordinates are the worst example of this. It's one thing to suggest that the military or a corporation might seek to exploit the Marker - it's a sci-fi trope that always makes me think of the Weyland-Yutani representative in Aliens, if nothing else - but typically there's a motive, or a rationalisation, beyond the characters apparently being evil for evil's sake. I did wonder if the Marker was meant to be influencing their personalities, as it does drive many to madness, suicide, or murder, but even before interacting with it Markoff is hardly an angel.

Ultimately, I think there's very little here for anyone who isn't a fan of the game, and a pretty dedicated fan at that. If you can overlook some of the writing and characters, you do get a look at the origins of Unitology and how Altman becomes their prophet - a reasonably convincing arc (for the most part - but I'll get to that) as he realises he can exploit the early Unitologists' belief in him as a prophet to prevent further disaster. We also get some insights into what the Marker is, and what it does, though it isn't presented in the clearest of ways. You get the impression that the developers/EA want the meat of the story to come out in the games, not any tie-in media, which is fair enough - but the insights you do get become a bit thin on the ground, and there's not really enough 'novel' here to be an enjoyable read even without learning anything new.

Unfortunately, much of what is achieved with Altman's arc is tossed out in the last few pages, with what has to be the worst ending I've come across for quite some time. In a baffling move, Evenson tosses out the relatively subtle legacy Altman would have left behind by pretending to be a true prophet when he was really just exploiting the Unitologists to get their help. Instead, Markoff and his evil psychiatrist buddy Stevens imprison Altman for a period of time before literally sitting him down at a table and doing their best Bond villain impression as they explain how they are going to invent the legend of Altman as the founder of the Church. As if that wasn't ham-fisted enough, Markoff then has Altman tossed into a chamber with a Necromorph while he and his cronies drink champagne and watch. And as if that wasn't bizarre enough, they make a tremendous point of arming Altman with a spoon. I really wish I was making any of that up.

Aside from the hilariously bad ending and the mediocre-with-moments-of-intrigue earlier on, it's also worth noting that the book doesn't seem to have been edited particularly well. There are typos here and there, including a few lines that simply don't make any sense - the villain at one point points out to a man he's about to have killed "I warned you, you aren't expendable." Sorry, what's that? Don't you mean he is expendable? Finally, in what seemed like a wonderful face-palm moment after that terrible ending (I really can't get over it), Evenson has an acknowledgement section - in which he thanks EA and Visceral for their 'first-person dismemberment' game. I'm not really sure what to take from that. Dead Space is a third-person game (Extraction aside, but that's an outlier), so one gets the impression that either Evenson hasn't played it or simply doesn't know what he's talking about when it comes to videogames. That's fair enough, to a point, but I also can't believe no one in EA's marketing department caught it. It just seems emblematic of the lack of thought that went into the book.

Two stars. Read at your own risk. It's not the worst story in the world, especially in the genre of videogame tie-in media, but other companies have put out increasingly high quality works - Karen Traviss's Gears of War books are particularly outstanding, adding depth to the universe whilst being great stories in their own right. Martyr, sadly, doesn't even come close.

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