Most of what is published under the fantasy and sci-fi category is horrible and can only be read when you are a teenager. In other words, when you still haven’t read almost anything and you have the discriminating skills of a baked potato. It was not always like that, because many allegedly “pulp” stories of the 30s are still great, but, in any event, that seems to be the current state of fantasy/sci-fi. Still, many of us began our literary adventures thanks to those books, so I guess they are “good for what they are.”
Recently, after trying for a long time to (re)read many books from my fantasy/sci-fi list and failing miserable because their quality is abysmal, I’ve been able to finish one of them. Oh, it’s not a work of great art, but I finished it, which is quite a success. So I’ll review it.
Besides, for a long time I’ve wanted to have a reviews page here, so that’s a good excuse as any. The book (a novelette) is Neat (2012), by Russell Zimmerman, and it’s his firs book if I’m not mistaken. He has already published the second one, and it’s apparently quite good (and better than the first.)
The book is set in the famous (well, for those of us who care about these things) Shadowrun universe, and I’ve to admit that if the book had not been based on it, I probably would not have finished it.
Shadow Run is a role-playing game first published in 1989, and it shows. Like the old Warhammer, it’s product from a day when people sometimes didn’t know exactly what they were doing, but they still managed to do amazing and crazy things. Creative freedom was at its peak, and most starting companies were small, they weren’t yet dominated by the marketing departments, and products weren’t designed by committee.
Basically, the game is magic meets technology. Then, to that, they added a futuristic dystopia ruled by megacorporations, with punk and Blade Runner aesthetics, fear of an ecological collapse, real-world mythologies becoming literally real, a cyberpunk setting, and a lot of Neuromancer references. The game has the typical fantasy tropes but now with megacorporations, cybernetic implants, magic, and weird hairdos. Naturally, there are dragons, but now dragons don’t sleep on top of their hoards of gold coins but own huge portfolios. In fact, the richest creature on Earth is a dragon, and he owns the biggest megacorporation in existence.
Therefore, the setting is unique, fascinating and, yes, chaotic. It’s a miracle that it, somehow, seems to hold together. Does Neat, like its parent setting, hold together? Sort of, if you don’t look closely.
If you have never read a Shadowrun book, or you don’t know anything about the setting, you will probably not understand the book. And even if you have, some things will be… confusing. A good example would be the answer to a basic question: “Where the hell does the story happen?”
The story happens in Seattle, in the Puyallup district to be precise. Now, in our real world, Seattle doesn’t have a Puyallup district, although there are a river and a little city with that name, 35 miles south of Seattle. However, in the Shadowrun universe, Seattle has grown so much (with an estimated 4-5 million residents, compared to 700 000 or so in our world) that it encompasses Tacoma and Puyallup and has become, in fact, almost a city-state. It’s also a shitty hellhole for most of its 2 million or so of unregistered residents who live in The Barrens or Puyallup.
These things, which are essential to world-building and can be explained in a single paragraph, are not mentioned. That’s a common defect in this kind of derivative and tie-in products; they just assume the reader knows the things referenced thanks to the original source, so they don’t bother explaining them much. For example, the book mentions many times the “ash of Puyallup.” At first, I thought that was because, I don’t know, bizarre industrial pollution? Well, I checked, and no, it’s raining ash because Puyallup is close to Mount Rainier. According to Wikipedia, “considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, and it is on the Decade Volcano list.” In other words, someday it may go boom, and in the Shadowrun universe that’s exactly what had happened. All of that, however, is not explained in the book.
Another outrageous example: In the last chapter (I won’t spoil anything), MCT is mentioned. It’s important for the story, but only once it is explained -and in passing- what MCT stands for (Mitsuhama Computer Technologies.) Also, how the protagonist deduces its importance is not explained or I missed it.
It is in its setting, and how it mixes real world references with wild mythology and fantasy, where Shadowrun excels; unfortunately, it’s also where the book fails. The potentially fascinating elements are left unexplained, or mentioned as one would talk about the daily chores. Mystical creatures, bizarre powers, or dark technologies are casually mentioned, losing all their mystery.
For example, there is something called a “bunraku” (a Japanese word, it’s kind of a puppet.) They are slave prostitutes whose personality is defined by a cybernetic data chip; their real self is erased or, at least, hidden (it’s not explained), and it’s the “user” who determines what kind of “act”, personality, or perverse fantasy he wants from the prostitute. You can’t get darker than that. However, the book deals with that almost casually.
Some of these errors can be blamed on the book’s extension. It is a short book (70 or so pages,) but I believe that with 20 pages more these problems could have been resolved. The pace is certainly rushed, and there is an egregious example when the protagonist (a noir, hard-boiled, and fedora-wearing detective -and burnt out mage-) enters the house where he believes a kidnapped girl was being held prisoner.
Those scenes matter in what is, in fact, an adventures book because they create tension, but there is no tension there. They do not find the girl, but what they find (something that would make a great memorable scene) is, well, dull, described with no strength or impact. And half the tension of assaulting a public building is written away because the protagonist uses some sort of spell that draws the attention away.
That scene happens near the middle of the book, and it highlights its weaknesses, because although the book starts OK and interesting, it goes downhill from there. A bit literally since the book seems to keep accelerating and explaining things less and less. With the exception of a page-turning car chase scene from the last pages, reading the second half was a bit of a chore.
Another weak point, common in fantasy settings, is magic. Magic and detective novels are a dangerous combination because it’s tempting to write magic as a sequence of Deus Ex Machinas. In fact, there is hardly any real investigation going on in the book. Most clues are gathered thanks to spells and hacking (which works like techno-magic), and the rest is done while shooting stuff. Or sleeping.
“Puzzle pieces fell into place while I stole another nap back in the office.”
Then, the “final deduction” seems to rely too much on this kind of insights -outside the reader knowledge-, not on the shared powers of human deduction. Also, for being such an -allegedly- weak mage, his powers drive the action in many scenes, and he seems to “discover” a new one if the current problem requires it, even if it’s just for showing off.
As I said, many of these things could have been avoided with a little more exposition, explanation, references, or dialogue. The core of the story is solid and potentially interesting, and the main protagonist (a very “un-elfy” elf) could become a recognizable fictional character, but it needs some serious polishing. Also, unlike most fantasy books, it does not need pruning but the opposite.