Monday, May 04, 2015

Bark: Mostly Harmless

A couple of days ago I finished reading Mostly Harmless, by Kate Russell.

I'd not read any Elite universe fiction since The Dark Wheel, the original novella that came with Elite way back in 1984, and I picked Kate's book mainly because I knew that she was an avid player of the game and had a certain familiarity and respect for the game world. I also bought it because it was the novelisation that sounded most interesting to me and I thought it would be a good yardstick to use to see if I would pick up any of the other books in the future.

First things first: I enjoyed the book. The story was entertaining and it felt suitably grounded in the Elite universe to come across convincingly as an "Elite" story. It stuck well enough to the Vonnegut principle (i.e. do horrible things to your characters to see what they're truly made of) to make the narrative interesting and dramatic. The writing also has a sense of humour and Commander Angel Rose's character was well-drawn, suitably flawed and had just enough hubris about her to be a likeable protagonist. I would not be unhappy to read about her further exploits in the future.


A few things about the book did annoy me.

Number one, by the rings of Asellus Primus, this book needed the attention of an editor who knows how punctuation works. There were so many little typesetting and punctuation errors in the first couple of chapters (and this did not improve throughout the rest of the book), that I almost stopped reading. I don't blame the author for this (unless, of course, the author did their own editing, in which case, they really should have known better!) - after all, the author's job is to write the story, the editor's job is to do the editing and iron out the author's inevitable mistakes. Honestly, you try writing 80,000-120,000 words without screwing up on spelling or adding in a space too many in a sentence somewhere... it's impossible - and no matter how much you proof-read it as an author, you won't find them all, because you're too close to the material - your eyes bypass the mistakes because you see what you had meant to write in your head, not what you actually wrote. That's why editors have a job - to be an extra pair of eyes on the manuscript that will see the flaws the author will never find.

Two, it was a little too easy to tell in the text that the novel had been crowdfunded. Some of the character and ship names were absolutely awful - I think that even in the 34th century people would have more class than to call ships Chandnør Waffoospark the Mad Swede, for example. Perhaps I'm missing out on some HILARIOUS pop culture reference here, but the obvious crowdfunding insertions did grate with me as both a reader and a writer. I know that this is how Kickstarter works with the reward levels and such, but I don't think I'd ever be happy with the idea of ceding over creative control over my work to some wonk on the internet, even if they were helping fund the novel. In my opinion, that's taking crowdfunding too far. If I don't have 100% creative control, it's not my piece of work, at the end of the day. And, crucially, it made the whole thing feel a little forced in some areas, rather than having a more organic, natural feel to the characterisation and the writing. If I was ever to crowdfund a novel (and I don't think I ever would), this would be one aspect where I'd retain control. If you want your own characters in a book, write your own fecking novel! Don't pay someone to crowbar them into theirs...

Three. I called the twist. I won't spoil it here, but I guessed it about a third of the way through. Maybe I've just watched too many thrillers and read too many mystery novels, but there wasn't enough depth to the personalities of the other supporting characters to provide enough misdirection to stop me from guessing where the twist would come from. It was still quite a fun twist, and the ultimate sting in the tail for the twister was an enjoyable one, but it was pretty obviously signposted very early on.

So, all things considered, Mostly Harmless is a decent enough book, and if you're remotely interested in Elite: Dangerous it's worth a punt. It's not going to win the Nebula Award for its style or originality, but it's perfectly servicable and enjoyable as a work of science fiction. Given this experience, then, will I now swoop down upon the Elite store and snaffle up the rest of the Elite: Dangerous novelisations? I don't think so. Not unless I'm given a personal recommendation by someone whose opinion in sci-fi books is known to be impeccable. Why settle for serviceable when there are so many books out there to be read that are better than that?

I'm out of here... I've got Time Of Contempt and Baptism of Fire to finish reading before The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt comes out...
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