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21 March 2011 @ 06:26 pm
SGA tie-in novel "Death Game": meh  
I know there's a fan comm to discuss these books, but since there's only one comment on the entry for this book, I can't judge whether it's actually another one of those communities that really only welcome squee. If it is, that's fine; I don't want to harsh anyone's squee, and I have a bad habit of not reading the room until too late, so here in my journal this tepid review will remain.

I'm posting this now so that I can go ahead and read "Homecoming" without forgetting anything here; I'd like to start that with a clean (mental) palate. Anyone who feels moved to comment, please do not spoil me for "Homecoming" or "The Lost".
I warn you now, this is in fairly random order.

Okay, so after I'd read only a few pages, I felt the need to ask, "Did these people never play D&D?" Oh, irony! Actually, I quite liked the backstory given to John here (on its own merits, but not as placed; more on both shortly) ... but making him a closet D&D geek makes it even more insane that they would be divided as they are in the book.

That plot thread just has no excuses at all. They left Rodney, alone, at a gate they knew was hacked, without even checking whether it could dial out! (No mention is made of the total inability to dial out in the introductory passages; Rodney explains this fact as elaboration of his investigations since he was left alone; John and Teyla are surprised that the tech-free civilization cannot open the gate from their side; and John assumes the rescue jumper can dial them all out with no problems, and Teyla does not correct him. They didn't check.) At the bare minimum, Teyla (or Ronon) should have been left with Rodney while Radek and Ronon (or Teyla) went to investigate the outpost, with John handling only the ferrying between them rather than flying around looking for trouble, since the jumper could well be their only shelter from potentially hostile natives for the next up-to-six weeks, for all they know. But that division would have deprived us of J/T shippiness (whatever, not my thing) ... so since we've randomly included Zelenka, why not randomly include another military person/guard from the outset? Like, say, Cadman.

Speaking of the energy shield, they know about it in the opening pages because that's what Radek and Ronon are investigating in the first place. Rodney even predicts it'll be just like the one on M7G-677, which was a field that disabled electronics, including the jumper, so flying across water to it was a great plan ... why? And they know there's some kind of shield but not whether it's an electronics-disruption field or an altitude shield ... how? What? Maybe they're investigating an entry from the database, not knowing if it's even active, but then why are both Rodney and Radek there before they learn the DHD is hacked?

Then Rodney knows nothing about it until Carson manages to hit it straight away (though it's above the "thousands of feet" the Wraith vessel passed over Radek and Ronon at), at which point they realized for apparently the first time that it was an altitude-based shield rather than the short-range field of M7G-677. Then we're given every mutter and foot-squashing from the moment the rescue team finds John and Teyla through the game of Space Chicken ... where John, who still (believably) remembers nothing of the prior encounter beyond what Teyla has told him, and who only dropped off Ronon and Radek but is not remotely said to have stuck around to hear preliminary results of their investigations, somehow knows about this shield. How? They didn't hit it before, because Teyla says he kept them at "extremely low altitude".

And speaking of Space Chicken, for that matter: The jumpers did not have shields until 2x14 "Grace under Pressure". It was John's idea! Yet this story, set two weeks after 2x05 "Condemned", has John relying on shields they don't have. When the climactic encounter gives us what looks like a continuity error followed by a glaring canon error within about a hundred words ... well, that tends to deflate the tension just a tad.

Getting back a bit to characters acting brainlessly: The rescue team lands on the island near the suspected shield generator. Cadman & Co. walk to the village "on the other end of the island", ask questions, walk back, report, and are sent walking back again for the classic Columbo "one more thing". They have radios! Time is allegedly important! Either have her radio back her news, or ferry her back to the village for that question. (Cadman is also weirdly meek throughout, which is just strange.)

Backing up further: Rodney says to send no one through, because they'll be trapped. Presumably only until the Daedalus can swing by (since, remember, Rodney doesn't know it's an altitude shield yet, and even that might be easily penetrated by the Asgard transport beam) ... so Lorne volunteers to come through to guard Rodney, trusting Rodney can repair the DHD interface. So it's okay to send the acting CO through, but not a jumper you can get back within six weeks or so and which would give them both shelter, as well as allowing a quicker search for the personnel who obviously are in trouble and could well be bleeding out? It's fine to sacrifice your primary gate team and the seconds-in-command of both the military and the science divisions, but the jumper to collect and shelter them is the bridge too far? It's obviously just a stalling tactic to make the rest of the plot timing line up, and while I'm always up for some good Rodney sleep deprivation, I want it to make sense; again, this plot thread just doesn't work at all. Rodney's rant that they aren't doing it right is a bit too meta and square on the nose.

The Wraith might not be quite so egregious. Why did they never come looking and never send their flunkies to look? They know another world's flying vessel is present, even if they didn't get a good look; any survivors could easily threaten their regime, from potentially inciting a revolt to setting up as opposing "gods". And if they did get a good look, they theoretically still think Atlantis was destroyed, right? So they'd certainly want to capture the owners of an Alteran vessel, if they survived, and not just trust that the local warlord will happen to bring them over as tribute. (Was the frequency of the game ever established? I'm going to hope it's more often than once a year, because that timing would just be too precious for words.) I guess maybe the Wraith are confident enough in their weapons, thanks to years of sloth, that they don't bother to check; it's dumb, but I'm not offended by the Wraith being dumb occasionally (unless it's Todd, who canonically isn't).

Hey, wait, how'd the Wraith cruiser get there? Their ship is too big for the gate — Radek even notes that. Crash-landed and then repaired on the ground, I'll have to guess.

A diversion for copyediting: The copyeditor seriously needs to overcome that nasty allergy to hyphens, in addition to needing to choose either "OK" or "okay" rather than splitting the difference with the nonsensical "ok".

One weird detail: For John never to remember the period shortly before the crash makes perfect sense. His persistent forgetting that he has sunglasses, in contrast, is just odd. He's been in enough bright conditions throughout his career, and would have enough awareness of his vision (since he's a pilot), that using them would be reflexive to a degree. Why would this be the one thing from his long-term memory that he can't keep a handle on? "I keep forgetting to put on this hat the locals gave me", sure; the sunglasses, not so much.

Now back to something approximating flow: I know in my writing, I have a very bad habit of assuming the reader can determine far more than I've made remotely clear. Pretty much every beta calls me on it, no matter how careful I try to be. I'm a little too wary of overexplaining and redundancy. The thing is, though, that at least avoids passages like this: [...] But then it had been less than forty eight [sic] hours since he had a concussion. He probably would still be in the infirmary back in Atlantis. "Dr. Beckett would have you still in the infirmary." The marked sentence may be an editing artifact, but it should have been deleted; the duplication does nothing but bog the story down, and I already had problems with the pacing.

The story tries to establish urgency on Rodney's side, as well as through the natural tension of separating the team-plus-one and facing them with dangers. The problem is that John and Teyla's passages do not have any evident danger; they instead have a lazy hazy days of summer rhythm. That might otherwise work within the environmental setting, but set among the other elements, it just made the story feel as if it was dragging on forever; the hints of the game came across as coy rather than as effective foreshadowing, and to the extent they worked as the latter, for me that was only because I knew the title of the book. I was chafing for something to happen already. And if that weren't problem enough for the pacing, we have the backstory/flashback ... things.

Those italicized passages just didn't work for me, for several reasons. First, the one with John's extended backstory is completely different from the rest. He's not actually telling Teyla this stuff (as far as I can tell); it's far too detailed and intimate for that. It's also significantly longer than any of the other set-apart sections, as well as being the first to be in third person (and one of only two total). It sticks out, and not in a beneficial way.

The remainder (save Rodney's (subtextual McShep? LOL)) are in first person, yet they're set apart by spacing and italics as though they're flashbacks. That's apparently to excuse the fact that these stories are set pieces, character flashfictions, not worked into their environments beyond the occasional second-person comment; but they're just awkward in execution. Either work them into the text or rework them as proper flashbacks/mission interviews/whatever. The whole "your turn to tell a story!" thing also became increasingly artificial. (The one exception there is Rodney, who actually did try to avoid Lorne's tale and who experienced his own little flashfiction moment as a memory. That structure actually worked for me; that was the only other flashfiction of the set to be in the third person.)

Radek's first flashfic also makes no sense. He spends about two-thirds of it explaining why he's the type to keep his head down, fade into the background, and make sure he's not noticed; then, with no segue at all, he's demonstrating for freedom:
[...]University depended on politics as much as anything, and my family was suspect. I should not have gone to university, except that I was very, very good.

And I am also very, very good at not getting caught. I am simple; you see? I am an egghead. I do not think about politics or sex or religion or any of those things. I do not even know who is in office. I have my head in a book, my mind on physics. I am a little egghead wimp, and I am no threat to anyone. I will toil very nicely in the background, doing things that make the reputations of my professors, and never ask for credit. It is good to have Radek Zelenka on one's team. He will get it done and never make trouble. I am good at getting by.

I was two and a half [sic?] when the Russians came. And I was twenty three [sic] when we threw them out.

I was there on November 17, 1989. We did not know what would happen. [...]
Yes, it's precisely that jarring. At no point does he note the contradiction, even to muse that he surprised himself by joining the demonstrations. Given that setup, he can't not know that he's just confused his listener. And the thing is, that's a great backstory! It (potentially) explains the man who groused and grumbled but toiled away in Rodney's shadow, yet turned out to have unexpected security-avoiding skills in "Tabula Rasa". It's a fantastic reminder that just because Earth doesn't have the Wraith, that doesn't mean there is no toil or strife or tyranny. Just a few words of any kind of segue, that's all I ask!

Speaking of nice backstories: Lorne's is sweet. And I really do like John's; the idea that he joined the Air Force not because he always wanted to fly but as a more practical way of siding with his mother against his father and getting his own way, with a buried element of having once dreamed of being an astronaut — that's certainly not fanon, but it definitely makes sense. For his mother to have lived until he was in service, and for his parents to have divorced while he was in college, and for that to be his sudden impetus to break free of his father's expectations (poli-sci preppie!) — that all works. We get glimpses of Dave, going along and getting along. I can't quite see this fight being the one that John's father later regretted all those years, not with John denouncing Linda as "a bimbo and a whore [...] a slut, a home wrecker and a high class call girl" in front of a restaurant's worth of people, so I have to wonder if there's perhaps something else between them we haven't yet been given. That charming little interlude, John attacking Linda as the sexual transgressor rather than his father (who actually and obviously was the offending party), also makes college!John a misogynistic asshole, but I can certainly buy him going that route, given his youth, his family, and the era. His being able to take the test on such short notice and Mel's sudden coming out to him are both a little too easy, a little too John-the-Mary-Sue, but those are minor and I can live with them.

The running theme in Teyla's stories of all stories beginning and ending in the blue flare of a gate was a nice touch (though when using such formal, stylized language, she would more likely phrase it as the blue flare of the Ring, and "Gate Field" is an unlikely term for the Athosians to have used); the contrast with John's story's setup (There's always a girl, and that's always a reason) is fun, despite the weakening of that parallel by the contrasting narrative modes. ("girl", gag, yet again, likely in character.) And the callback to Ronon's flashfic was well done. I hadn't put that together with the setting until Radek's comment, which was very nicely handled as negative space.

Radek and Ronon's story actually worked quite well for me. They made mistakes, but I bought those mistakes as reasonable ones for these two characters to make, and they were nicely resourceful in ways that suited them. The barriers they encountered made sense all along the way, from transportation to hunger to lack of footwear.

And finally, the death game itself is clever. John's persistent application of D&D, to both humorous and useful effect, was a lot of fun. The staging, especially the different ways it appears to different levels of analysis (to locals, to John and Teyla, and then once the lights are on), is nicely considered. The underlying psychology, that the game itself would seem to select the strongest and cleverest, but truly selects the most self-serving while subverting cooperation, is brilliant.

It just took too long to get there, and there was just too much in the way to let me enjoy the arrival.

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