Monday, August 6, 2012

Nitpickery: Heaven's Devils

Hey y'all.

Have you ever read a book and wonder how it got published?  The first time I did that (other than with school books...guh) was when I was reading Mary Higgins Clark.  She comes up with really great premises, like a criminal investigator who sees a victim that looks just like her, but the execution of it wasn't that great.  The endings are just too nice, wrapped up in a perfect little bow.

This is my official apology to Mary Higgins Clark.  She only somewhat deserved the things I thought about her, and even then people really do like endings with perfect little bows.  How else do you explain romance novels?  Just because her endings are that way doesn't mean she can't write.  She's able to connect with the readers through emotion, and that's got to count for something.

And that brings us to a recent read of mine: Heaven's Devils by William C. Dietz.  This is an official Starcraft fanfiction, and it's aimed to give us Raynor's backstory.  At least it....tried.

I don't read much of the official fiction from Blizzard.  I had a bad experience with Liberty's Crusade, which was a novelization of the Terran missions from original Starcraft.  This was years ago, and so I don't remember most of the details, only that I found it so atrocious that I skipped over most of it and then sent it to a member of a forum I went to so that he wouldn't have to pay to read it.  The one thing I can remember about that book was one of Raynor's swears: "Samuel [So and so] on a bicycle". Who the crap curses like that?  Certainly not Raynor.  He'd just say a real swear.  I don't like cursing, but the quote there is just bad characterization and just a stupid swear in general.

In any case, back to Heaven's Devils.  I was reading this book because Blizzard made its novels canon, and I wanted to learn about the Kel-Morian Combine, which apparently has characters from that faction in the book.  So I check out the book, and I immediately wonder what went wrong.  Now, has its fair share of bad writing, but none of that ever got published.  And this was worse.

Apparently William C. Dietz has been published many times, and his books have even been translated into other languages.  I've seen his books in the used bookstore before.  How in the world did his book come out sounding so amateur?  But wait, wait, let's be objective.  I rant too much, and it would be nice to have a clear, objective review of the work.

First of all, a quick summary of the plot.  This is the story of how James Raynor, protagonist of Starcraft, went from a farmer's kid to a soldier with firm morals, building the basis of his heroic nature in the games.  It begins with his recruitment into the Confederate army and goes on to describe how he met up with Tychus Findlay and their misadventures against corrupt leaders in the Kel-Morian Combine.

My main complaint with this book is the narrative.  Narrative is the parts of a story that aren't dialogue: descriptions, plot progression, and so forth.  Dietz has the most stale narrative I have ever seen in my life.  It's so unemotional in the way it describes things that it stands in the way of getting emotionally connected with the characters.  Narrative is step one in the process of writing, and while usually newer writers have problems here and there with their narrative being dry (this affects experienced writers too, but less often), but the writing was so consistently passive that it must have been his style.

Here's an example.  Note that Dietz is describing the wreckage of a passenger aircraft that just crashed.

"Seconds later, a muffled thump was heard behind them as the fire found the dropship's fuel supply, and the entire vessel exploded into flames. A series of popping noises resounded as ammo cooked off inside the hull, followed by a couple of muted blasts, and a sharp bang as an overhead air tank blew, firing chunks of shrapnel in every direction"  -Page 110

I admit, there was a time when I wrote like this.  On, that is, where only fellow noobs and the more experienced fanfiction writers could witness.  It's common stage for the more pretentious writer types.  However, at some point the writer has to grow out of it.  Giving sounds and then describing why each sound was made is just not the way to describe an intense battle situation. Besides that, Raynor and other recruits are fleeing from the crash at this time.  They're not observing each little detail of the burning dropship.  I'm not against 3rd person omniscient, but wouldn't it be more exciting to describe this crash from the eyes of the people trying not to burn to death?

Dietz goes on like this.  He overdescribes things, and just renders said things completely uninteresting.  Letting readers fill in gaps with their imagination is the best way to write.

Another problem with it is the dialogue.  Now, most of the human characters in Starcraft are complete rednecks, so they should speak with hick accents, right?  In this story, there's none until page 46, and not that much after.  And yes, the story begins in Raynor's hick farm town, where basically everyone should be country.  It's not just about the accents either.  What about the redneck mentality?  Guns, guts, and glory?

And, um, if Raynor is a young adult who has completed the only schooling he's going to get (one has to assume hicks don't get too much education; Starcraft is fairly dystopian), then why does he still suffer from bully problems?  Guys are pretty aggressive, but as they get older, they stop fighting each other for no reason.  Therefore, if someone's giving Raynor crap, it's because Raynor did something to offend that guy or caused him to want to show Raynor up.

Here's a comment by James Raynor's dad.  I'm not going to say anything about it.  I'm just gonna post it.  Read it and everything will become clear.

"Your mother's right, Jim," Trace put in. "Fighting's not the answer. But it's important to stand up for yourself, especially when it comes to bullies. The key is knowing when to get involved and when to walk away, because you never know what kind of mess you're getting into until you're up to your neck in it."


Dietz even commits two amateur sci-fi writer sins.  Neither are very serious to the story, but it's the sort of thing that can quickly make readers not take a writer seriously.  First, he names a character Ryk Kydd.  Dumb sci-fi names are pretty common to newer writers, not published people.  Then again, George Lucas did go from names like "Luke Skywalker" and "Han Solo" to "Depa Billaba" and "Kit Fisto", so who knows?

The second sci-fi sin is putting adjectives in front of common items to make them more futuristic sounding.  Dietz picked "sonic".  Sonic showers, sonic toothbrushes, and sonic clothes washers (note that "clothes washer" is how he put it).  I had to wonder if everyone in the K Sector were huge fans of speedy blue hedgehogs, or if the Doctor zoomed in with the Tardis and decided to play Santa Claus this year.

But let me take a break and actually say a couple of good things about it.  I really liked that Dietz mentioned triticale, a sort of genetically manipulated wheat that produces more per head.  This reminds me of the Star Trek episode Trouble with Tribbles where they have quadro-triticale.  I know triticale is real, but mentioning it still gives nerd cred.  Where else are you going to find out about it besides Star Trek anyway, if even then?

Also, there was an exchange I thought was pretty cute.

"Harnack pushed the net up away from his face and yawned. 'What the hell was that all about? Doesn't the old geezer realize that some of us are trying to sleep?'
'We're about an hour out,' Raynor replied. 'The dancing girls have been notified of your arrival, free beer is available in the mess hall, and you were promoted to general.'
'Sounds good.' Harnack replied agreeably, as he began to extricate himself from the net. 'Save my place. The general needs to pee.'"

Of course, even this has a bit of awkwardness in it.  "Extricate himself from the net?"  Sigh.  Again, it's amateur to overuse fancy words -- other than in dialogue for pretentious characters, of course.

There's a few other issues as well.  I've been bringing up a lot of writing issues, but now for some plot ones.

3rd place worst plot issue:  Tychus Findlay.  Now, at the beginning of the story he works for the Confederates, and is involved in a scheme to frame the Kel-Morian Combine for an attack on a Confederate city.  Huge scandal, yes?  To make it worse, Findlay attacked his officer during this conflict.

Now that sounds pretty good, yes?  Honestly, Tychus has the best plot in this story.  The reason why it's such a plot issue is that illogical stuff happens.  So after he hits the officer, of course the others knock him out.  And it's described like this.

"Tychus...wondered how he could have been so stupid, and fell into a black hole."

Isn't that the dumbest way you've ever heard someone getting knocked out?  Okay okay, plot, not writing.  So if this scandal gets found out, the Confederates will look evil, and especially the commanding officer, yes?  And since Tychus attacked his commanding officer, he's a weak link and likely to spill the beans, right?  If he's working for a really corrupt authority, then the most obvious answer for them would be to kill Tychus, or maybe if he's lucky they'll bribe him.  Another idea that could work is framing him for something, or shuffling him off to some backwater little planet with nobody but local rednecks and cows to talk to.

But they don't.  Instead, they demote him to private and shuffle him off to prison.  A demotion?  For something that huge?  It'd be one thing if he just punched the officer, but he could let loose a whole load of scandal.  Leaving him as a private implies that he can still be promoted, and still make life hard on the Confederacy.  Heck, he's still in the army once he gets out of jail!

And he does get out.  He literally serves a sentence and gets out.  The guy that can unload a potentially war-starting scandal and has no particular reason not to.  At least none that gets described. Tychus is in jail for all of a chapter (after a pretty dumb murder which nobody bothers to investigate properly), and then gets out and is able to start over.  Personally, if I were him I'd blab about everything just to punish the officer for being so stupid.

2nd place worst plot issue: Ryk Kydd.  Fortunately for the kid, this is not his real name.  His true name is Ark Bennet, and he's this rich kid from a powerful Confederate family.  However, because the kid is completely stupid (this is not a plot complaint; the kid was supposed to be stupid) he wanders in the bad part of town and starts drinking with a...prostitute?  The plot isn't clear, but she's involved in some sort of criminal activities.  Anyway, she drugs Ark and steals his wallet.  She then sells the drugged kid to the army, and he is officially shanghai'ed under the most terrible fake name in the K-Sector.

There's several problems with the plot here.  One is, Ark is not content with his life with his family. He doesn't feel like he can cope with being part of a rich family.  This makes it much easier to adjust to life as a Confederate soldier.  Too much easier.  The point of a fictitious story is to provide drama and conflict for the audience, and if the dude doesn't miss his family or even his money, then there isn't a conflict.  Two, he never complains about his new name.

Three, where the crap is this guy's family?  If they're a rich family, then they have the power to search for their son no matter how corrupt the government is.  Also, if you've got a mysterious kid with a really dumb fake name in the army who's complaining about being shanghai'ed, then isn't it possible that he's the kid they're looking for?  Is it worth pissing off an important family just for one single recruit?  It also seems pretty likely that someone would kidnap the kid again and then turn him in to his family for the reward money.

But no, Ark Bennet embraces his army life and his new, dumb name, while his family gives up on him.  Because the plot requires it.

1st place worst plot issue: James Raynor.

Now, I'm pretty sad about the other two plot problems, because in the end I actually did care at least a little about Tychus and Ark.  Their circumstances made them interesting, at least a little.  However, with James Raynor, protagonist of Starcraft and main character in this book, there's nothing at all interesting.  Never mind that the entire point of this book is to give Raynor's backstory.

So what happens to Raynor?  He works on a family farm, encounters a recruiter, and then decides to join the army.  That's it.  No drama, other than a bully problem that resolves itself very quickly and without interesting conflict.  Raynor beats up the bully, then later decides to let the bully and his goonies beat him up just so the bully "has his revenge" and leaves Raynor alone from then on.  Seriously?  This is Raynor's backstory and all we get is a middle school bully bit?  Besides, I'm pretty sure that if you let a bully beat you up, he'll just disrespect you even more and hit you whenever he's got the urge to punch something.

One more writing note.  If you're writing a fight scene, don't undercut it with a flashback, and describe people's actions, not people's thoughts.  And this phrase -- "Then the beating was over, the pain was gone. Raynor was at peace." -- sounds really stupid.  It might work if Raynor died, but nobody wants that to happen.

Can't Raynor just have some cool plot?  There's a million ways this could have gone.  Maybe show some flashbacks of Raynor as a kid, and he's defending someone.  Raynor could have gone to war to save his parents, or for a girl, or out of desperation to prove himself.  Maybe he hates the Kel-Morian Combine for some reason.  Or wants to find his fortune.  Just something that isn't the most boring thing ever.  Maybe make it so Raynor finds Tychus and saves him from being killed by the Confederacy when it's trying to cover its tracks.  Maybe Raynor wants to go bring Ark home, but then Ark realizes that he doesn't mind being a soldier, or something.  There's a bajillion possibilities here.

And Dietz took none of them.  That's the real failing of this story.  It doesn't give Raynor an interesting background, when that's the entire point.

Admittedly, I could not finish the book.  Even though the entire reason I decided to read this was to find out about the Kel-Morian Combine, I never even made it to the parts where the KMC characters appear.  I made it through about 200 pages before I had to give up.  After I read through the most stereotypical bar scene written with an inane, tedious striptease act (yes, it was written that badly), it was just over.  I didn't care anymore.  I didn't get to read what I set out to read, but it just wasn't worth it.  Besides, if I can get this many nitpicks out of 200 pages, then I could get many more.  And nobody wants to read all that mess.

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