Written by Martin Allen, artwork by Tim Sell
Oh boy, a sci-fi Fighting Fantasy.
When I was a kid, the sci-fi books in this series meant one thing and one thing only - a giant warning light with the words 'AVOID' printed on them. Thus far in my blogging career, the entire sci-fi episodes of the franchise has been something of a damp squib. Will this one change that? I really don't think so, but I'm willing to give it a shot!
I had umpteen chances to purchase this book when I was a kid, and never did. Almost entirely because the cover is just simply so bland, with a strange alien thingy riding what appears to be a flying motorbike. There's a laser beam and I'd guess it is meant to indicate that the creature is firing at someone, but the angle makes this difficult to tell for sure, and the background is a simple gradiant yellow which simply screams lack of imagination. Really, with a cover like that, what kind of adventure is it selling? What lurks within?
It doesn't start off well. You play as a four-armed alien knight thing from a planet whose name looks like someone's cat walked across the keyboard. Your planet's king summons you and tells you that he needs your service, because an evil Generic Bad Guy is doing Generic Bad Things. Our villain of the month is L'Bastin, whose foul plans involve tax evasion.
The evil fiends other crimes include selling his flatmate's possessions at the local pawn shop, and glueing a pineapple to the queen's face. I wish I was joking here. I really do. Seriously, come back Balthus Dire, all is forgiven! Anyway, I'm promptly shipped off to the bad guy's space castle (a castle on a planet in space... some things never change, eh?) which is full of mutant cross-breed monsters of various types. So in short, I suspect, it's going to be just like any other FF book, with nothing really major to differentiate it from the fantasy genre ones. If this pans out to be the case, that'll mean that the best sci-fi one is Starship Traveller, as disturbing as that sounds... okay, let's get on with it. The book asks me if I want to start off by making my ship time-warp or light-warp to the enemy's castle.
Stumbling out of the lake, the droid starts to toddle off on its own into the distance. I follow along after it, eventually losing sight of it. I walk along a random path, and find an alien spaceship which has landed on the planet. I attempt to board it, but two mutant monsters emerge and try to eat me. I defeat them both, but then apparantly lose interest in the ship because I go in another direction entirely. I don't know why, the book simply tells you that you do this. Frankly, given how many times I've said the word 'random' at this point, I'm not bloody surprised.
I manage to find the droid and save it from another generic mutant thing, and the droid is so thankful that it takes me to see its master, who lives in a nearby cave. The droid's master tells me that the planet has been taken over by an evil sprite type thing and an army of mutants, and the droid was sent to save them all because it has some kind of mcguffin that can destroy the sprite's ship.
Let me make the record nice and clear though, I don't dislike sci-fi. But good sci-fi is very hard to write well. I largely think that the age of really challenging sci-fi is a thing of the past now, that we've run out of Arthur C Clarkes and Philip K Dicks. Good sci-fi should make us stop and think about ourselves, question who we are and where we are going. Very few sci-fi products do that any more, the last good one I seen was Duncan Jones' movie 'Moon'. To make matters more difficult, years of big franchise sci-fi like Star Trek and Star Wars has had some real impact on the genre, and not necessarily for the better. That is, technology in Star Trek works very much by throwing random tech-sounding words together as if technology was a form of magic (which makes a fan of Clarke's style 'hard sci-fi' like me kinda squirm), leaving me feeling as if I'm standing in a cold dark room clutching my dog-eared copy of William Gibson's 'Neuromancer', hoping for better days.
But yeah, in short, I don't hate sci-fi, I just think it's very hard to do it well, and that's why many writers struggle with it. But, god help me, I decide to give it another shot.
Once inside the station, I'm given the choice as to if I want to leave the room I'm in, or look at either a plastic tap or a glass tap. I look at the glass tap, and I'm told that I then decide that I don't want to do anything so just leave the room anyway. Wow. I'm so glad that the book gave me this choice. It added so much to my adventure and WHY AM I DOING THIS? I could be re-playing City of Thieves right now, and enjoying myself.
So after I pick the lock of the door (urrrrgh) I enter a room with a set of space mopeds in one corner, a la the high-speed carts in the film Space Mutiny. "Put your helmet on, we'll be reaching speeds of three!" But no time to think about that, because there's an evil orange blob on the other side of the room. I get on the cart and drive towards the orange blob, hoping that it'll put me out of my misery. Instead I drive right over it, through the door, and wind up in the hydroponics bay.
Hydroponics bay exists purely to annoy me. I try to examine some of the plants, and I'm attacked by brambles. Brambles, and I mean 'attacked' as in they are alive and fighting me. Can you guess how many skill points a bramble has? You don't have to guess, this book tells you. I'm feeling suitably underwhelmed, so after killing the bramble, the book asks if I want to eat a strawberry. Keen to have some slight sense of pleasure in my otherwise dreary mission, I chew on a strawberry. It was poisoned.
The shuttle is inhabited by a survivor of the station, who is terrified of the orange blob, which has evidently ate all his friends. Like any kindly and noble space warrior, I butcher the terrified old man in cold blood. I take his box of cigars and revolver with me, because fuck it why not? And then I'm thrown into a fight with the orange blob. As a 'fight', it is actually fairly unique and innovative for this book, as I need to throw things at it, the blob then eats them and I hope that it gets full or poisoned or something. The entire innovation is kinda ruined because when I fail at this, I get a very generic 'The blob catches up and devours you' ending. Not even an imaginative description of it devouring your flesh. Feh.
I mean, let's compare this to my all-time fave FF book, Vault of the Vampire. Vault is a classic haunted castle, very little in terms of being unique. It's got nothing that really sets it apart from many FF books, but the writing is excellent. The descriptions are lavish, the monsters feel vibrant and the atmosphere jumps off the page. In this one, it all feels so bland. And that segment with the glass spiggot, where I ask to look at it, the character glances at it and then decides to walk off anyway, that's no real difference than just having the segment say 'turn to paragraph 307', which as you know is one of my real pet peeves.
In short, this book needed more. It has ideas, deep down, but it's all just performed in such a lazy manner. As if there's just no love or heart put into it. Which, strangely enough, is why I dislike The Hobbit movies. This book just reads as if someone was told to go and write it, and really didn't care if what they had at the end of the day was going to be good or not. And if they didn't care, why should I?
Next time on Fighting For Your Fantasy... Something else.