Fiction Reviews

Elite: Docking is Difficult

(2014) Gideon Defoe, Gollancz, £9.99, hrdbk, 162pp, ISBN 978-1-473-20130-9


Fans of the BBC Micro (Model B, of course), an early educational and home enthusiast microcomputer from the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, might recall the space simulation game Elite. In this game, you immersed yourself as the captain and pilot of a spaceship in a 3 dimensional , wire-frame universe, populated with (what seemed like) endless star systems, multiple spinning space stations, and numerous other space ships piloted by AI opponents. You could choose to trade goods between star systems and space stations, to make money and upgrade your ship. You could be a smuggler of illegal substances (but don’t get caught by the cops). Or you could go rogue, become a pirate, and steal the goods and wealth of others. All the time, you had to avoid the (other) bad guys out there, and keep your nose clean with the space cops. With the restricted technology and graphics of the late '70s home computer the screens were rudimentary, the space stations and planets all featureless. The ships quite often were jumbled lines and dots moving across the screen: but the challenge was real, the concept gargantuan, and you got sucked in, playing for hours at a time without noticing, forgetting to eat or do homework.

So why am I describing an ancient piece of computer game history when reviewing a book? Well, a recent Kickstarter-funded project has recreated the universe of Elite as Elite: Dangerous and funding a new version of the computer game (just released December 2014). A number of short novels set to the backdrop of the game have also emerged. Docking is Difficult by Gideon Defoe is one such novel.

Misha is a young 'pig' farmer on Gippsworld, a 'gold-rush' world settled in the belief it held immeasurably valuable resources, which turned out to be worthless. He dreams of being with his unattainable sweet-heart, Phoebe, a distinctly plain Customs & Excise cop with an artificial leg who patrols the local half-finished space station. He strives to make himself worthy of her attentions by reading the extensive self-improvement come battle-training advice of Cliff Ganymede, a narcissistic mega-star author. Then a new and totally unexpected source of wealth is found on Gippsworld, and at the same time Cliff Ganymede dies in suspicious circumstances. Misha and Phoebe are thrust into a system-wide conspiracy involving Phoebe’s ex-boyfriend turned pirate, a talking diary horse, and weapons-grade publishers.

The storyline is definitely in the comic-novella style, and paints pictures using lots of primary colours. Like the original game of Elite, the characters and the universe are three dimensional but distinctly 'wire-frame'”. This is a novel that uses a lot of CAPITALISED WORDS to add EMPHASIS. I tend to prefer gaining an understanding of character emotion and narrative emphasis from the sentence construction and word choice as opposed to the typesetting, but perhaps mine is an old-fashioned view.

Having said all that, the storyline is engaging and a cohesive narrative emerges that drives you through the pages at pace. The link to the Elite game universe is tentative, and you certainly do not need to be familiar with game-play to enjoy the book. Just expect more 'Cliff Ganymede' than Tolstoy!

Richard Edwards

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