Fiction Reviews


Elite Dangerous: Wanted

(2014) Gavin Deas, Gollancz, £9.99, hrdbk, 266pp, ISBN 978-1-473-20128-6

 

Ravindra Khanguire had history: she had been in prison before and now was out engaged in a bit of piracy. And there were pirates about targeting both Empire and Federation ships as well as independent traders, so those on the wrong side of the law knew that they had to be careful about where they went. Fortunately there were some space stations in systems that would for a fee ensure safety as long as visitors obeyed by the rules and played nicely. Ravindra's job now was to take her ship and crew to a remote asteroid to hand over a mysterious sealed cargo from a contract plunder job. However the deal could go sour if the client decided to use force and not pay up…

Meanwhile Siva is a bounty hunter who has joined the dots between the occasional disappearances of grid of a ship and the episodic attacks on innocent ships. Siva and Ravindra are on a collision course.

And then there are those who paid for the contract job who aren't at all happy that the deal has gone sour and, importantly, that they are without their cargo…

This is good, old-fashioned, rockets and ray guns, sci-fi space-opera with a lick of recent tropes: functional pharmaceuticals, an understanding of galactic cosmology and genetic engineering. OK, so this is an old fashioned ripping yarn, but it is a ripping yarn with no nonsense spaceships packed with in your face military lasers. True there is little more than that, and even the sealed cargo on which everyone has a claim is a McGuffin, but formulaic as this is, what is not to like?

Now, bog standard, shoot 'em up, sci-fi space opera this may be, but the formulaic dimension has itself some history beyond SF writing and in the early days of home PC (personal computer) gaming. Here, by 'early days' we are talking about the early-1980s and the BBC Acorn computer. Yes, the BBC, the official British radio and television folk. Back then they decided that that as the BBC was into both education and entertainment using technology (radio and television we take for granted were noted technological developments of the 20th century) and so it seemed reasonable for the corporation to be involved in the latest domestic technological marvel, computing. To this end they developed the BBC Acorn computer and then the BBC Master that were quickly adopted by nearly all schools and so became cheap enough for home purchase. One of the first games developed for the BBC was a sci-fi, shooting space game called Elite. But its creators must have been genre fans because they launched it with a novella by Robert Holdstock in the pack. The game itself had ludicrously simple graphics by today's standards, with space ships depicted as wire-frame outlines, nearby suns as white circles and nearby planets as wire outline circles. Space stations were dodecahedron (or whatever polyhedron it was) rotating objects with a rectangle in one face with which one had to line up, matching the station's rotation, and then dock à la 2001: A Space Odyssey. In addition to shooting, energy banks that could be depleted if used faster than they could be replenished, ditto shields, there was the ability to scoop up floating cargo. You could either trade between planet systems, be a pirate but run the risk of getting the authorities after you, be a smuggler, or simply mess around. But if you did play and accrue wealth you could beef up your ship and eventually get sent on missions. Elite was a computing success. All of which brings us up to today (autumn 2014).

The end of 2014 saw the release of the new Elite Dangerous game from Frontier Developments who have teamed up with Gollancz who are near-simultaneously releasing three sci-fi novels of which this is one. Those familiar with the original Elite will certainly recognise much right from the word go. But for me the nostalgic highlight came with one of the protagonists in a space station bar that had a wall screen depicting a series of old docking crashes. Space station docking was a bit of skill; only wimps used computers to auto-dock.

The author Gavin Deas is actually schizophrenic: Deas being a pseudonym of Gollancz authors Gavin Smith and Stephen Deas. The two have recently written their first joint widescreen space opera, the twin book Empires: Extraction and Empires: Infiltration, but they are both known for their own work. Gavin Smith started off with the perfectly reasonable military SF veteran but did not develop as a writer other than becoming very proficient in testosterone-driven fight scenes. What he desperately needed was someone to provide the framework. He found his focus with the fantasy writer Stephen Deas and together (though it is early days yet) the two do seem to be good for one another when it comes to science fiction. Surprisingly it seems as if it is fantasy Deas that is the one beefing up some of the science.

True, Wanted is constrained by being a franchise book. The authors together may well have been able to include a deeper science fictional element around which the plot might have revolved, but I suspect that had they had they would not have wanted to 'waste' such creativity on someone else's franchise but used that for their own work. Having said that, for the SF reader there do seem to be some nods and winks. For instance, early on we get McAuley and Newman; a reference to Brit genre personalities and friends Paul McAuley and Kim Newman perhaps? There are others too and these added to the Elite references provide added enjoyment to genre buffs and aficionados. OK, so this is not a classic SF work but it is a perfectly serviceable space opera and a joy to read for those into action SF. And as a hardback at only £9.99, with an integrated cover (not loose dust cover), it is good value. Indeed, despite my long having ceased my youthful wasting of time playing games, it did bring back memories of the original Elite with sufficient nostalgic gusto that I might just have a go at the new Elite Dangerous. ('Might' being the operative word.)

Jonathan Cowie


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