Saturday, May 17, 2014

Nitpickery -- Starcraft: Shadow of the Xel'Naga

Hey y'all.  It turns out that my store did have the second of the Starcraft fanfiction trilogy, Shadow of the Xel'Naga.  And guess what it has in common with all the other Starcraft novels?

You guessed it.  It sucks.

Now, to this point, the stories have generally been flawed only partially.  Starcraft Ghost: Nova had great ideas with bad narrative.  Liberty's Crusade had extremely weak ideas with half decent execution.  Speed of Darkness was emotionally sound, but not deep enough.  And Heaven's Devils, though very, very bad, at least had some logic to the places it brought Raynor's character.

Shadow of the Xel'Naga is worse than all of them.  Now, I'm not trying to hate on Starcraft.  Me and Starcraft, always and forever.  My choices in reading their books has to do with what's available in the store where I work; I'm not directly seeking out books I know are bad.  I wanted to find a Starcraft novel I liked, I really did.  But Gabriel Mesta has just plain failed me. this is interesting.  It turns out that "Gabriel Mesta" is the pseudonym of writing couple Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta.

Adorable is no substitute for good writing.
Well, let's just treat Gabriel like a real person.  That way it doesn't seem like I'm ranting and raving at a cute couple doing a book together.  Because I do need to rant and rave, but I really don't want to go too far. There's this guy on the net who does his reviews, and every time there's an episode of something animated he doesn't like, he turns into an angry monster and starts saying horrible things about the writers simply because he doesn't like them.  I, however, will make fun of a book as much as I want, but it's strictly impersonal.  I'm not going to call Mesta stupid, say that he should never write again, or call him a bad person.  Just because people write badly doesn't mean they can't improve, that they should be treated badly, or that their personal life should be mocked.

In any case, Shadow of the Xel'Naga is the "story" of an artifact being found on the colony planet Bhekar Ro (horrible name, btw).  The Zerg, the Protoss, and the Terran Dominion all want the artifact, for varying and not well explained reasons, leaving the citizens of the planet to figure out how to deal with all this.  It then turns out that the artifact is really a phoenix-like creature created by the Xel'Naga, and he feeds on Zerg and Protoss DNA.  And then he flies off, never to be seen again.

Onward to the mockery!  Characters, you have failed.  Stand there and recount your failings.

Infested Kerrigan: "Hi, readers!  Would you like to hear my backstory?  I mean, you've probably already played Starcraft if you're reading this book, but do you want to hear it again?  I'll tell you!  And then I'll tell you again!  And then we can talk some more about what I think about Arcturus Mengsk!  And then I'll repeat it!"

Arcturus Mengsk: "Oh, we're rehashing things?  Then listen to me give my epic speech from the end of the first Terran missions again and weep for the fact that no writing in this book is going to compare to it."

General Duke: "Remember when I used to be a redneck?  That's so last year.  Captain obvious is the new redneck.  Now I just bark orders around and say things that are on my mind no matter how offensive and obvious it is, or who is standing around me."

Judicator Amdor: "Rarr, Judicators are evil!  We're all alike, specially grown in labs to be the most obnoxious, shallow creatures with no sense of priority or desire for anything besides our own personal gain! We bully other Protoss despite being totally incompetent, and they just put up with it because that's what the Khala says!  And yes, running after elusive Dark Templar is so more important than defending the homeworld!"

Templar Koronis: "Um, I'm only here to be pushed around by the Judicator.  Just ignore me."

Octavia Bren: "Boo-hoo-hoo, please, please listen to my horrible, tragic story.  Everybody around me dies and then my brother Lars got zapped by an alien artifact because they didn't do what I told them to do!  If only they had listened to my mystic premonitions!  Waaaaah! General Duke is a meanie!  Feel sorry for me!"

Dark Templar Xerana:  "As a Dark Templar, loner, and female scientist, I am an outcast among outcasts, and the only one with true understanding of the Xel'Naga.  Yes, me and no one else.  I am a genius, and everyone who doesn't listen to me is an idiot who makes bad decisions."

Octavia: "And together we form -- "

Xerana/Octavia: "The Saintly Female Victims Club!"

Xerana: "Coming next fall to Lifetime."

Bhekar Ro townsfolk: "Uh...we're totally real, fleshed out characters who aren't cannon fodder for the swarm.  Now if you'll excuse us, we've got to go get infested now."

Guh.  There isn't one likable person in the batch.  They're all a bunch of cartoon characters that do things because that's what cartoons do.  I know I was going to keep this impersonal, but it's really hard for me to watch a writer put out product this bad.  It's just genuinely so lazy.  It's as if Blizzard randomly went up to Mesta, handed him the game, and told him to write a novel despite never having played the game before.  Seriously, this is the literary equivalent of two kids going "Rawr" and banging plastic toy monsters together.

Random High Templar.  What's the deal with the back of your robe, bud?  Looks unfinished.

Okay, let's run through the more obvious stuff.
- Um, you don't have to capitalize Starcraft units and buildings.  It makes it look like you're giving too much significance to random things.
- Describing battles with video game terminology makes writers look like doofuses.  Gameplay is an unrealistic comparison to battles, especially when it comes to fantasy RTS games.  Make it feel real or don't write it.
- ....There is a sad tendency in this book to use unnecessary "was" and "had been" statements. But that's nothing new for Starcraft official fanfiction.
- Amdor is a really stupid name.  Xerana and Koronis are lame, but I could let them pass.  I'm not saying it's easy to create cool sounding Protoss names, but you could have tried a little bit.  That goes for the human names, too.
- Um, hon, only noobs on make Protoss talk in all italics.  It's distracting, even if you only do it when a Protoss and a human are talking.

It's really horrible how little Mesta knew about Starcraft and its lore.  He sets this game right after Tassadar's sacrifice, but still has the Judicator and Dark Templar at each other's throats, despite the fact that most Protoss had accepted refuge on the Dark Templar homeworld at that point.  Sheesh, did Mesta even do a cheater's playthrough of Starcraft first?  Another reviewer mentioned that Mesta's use of Starcraft units was innaccurate to the game, but I skimmed through most of the battles, so I'll take their word for it.  I did notice that Mesta said dragoons are highly manuverable, which is laughable to anyone who's ever played the game.

Probably the thing that offended me the most about this book is its treatment of the Judicator.  Granted, this is more of a personal problem, seeing as I really like Aldaris as a character.  Not that people who dislike him won't hate how shallow Amdor's portrayal is.  For one thing, "Judicator" is both singular and plural.  It's not "Judicators."

For another, the portrayal of the Nerazim/Khalai conflict isn't that simple.  Yes, the Khalai Protoss (and not just the Judicator) disliked and shunned the Dark Templar, but there was never any sign that the Khalai went out of their way to hunt Nerazim down.  Thing is, after the Aeon of Strife, a time of war between the Protoss tribes, the Khala was seen as a way for all Protoss to get along.  The reason why the Khalai despised the DTs so much is that they saw DT reluctance as a refusal to finally put aside their differences and become a peaceful civilization.  That, and apparently "religious" differences, though Aiur's conflicts are just as "religious" as Ireland's, quite frankly (for those unfamiliar with history books, that means not at all).  Simply put, the Khalai feared them for being different, and the Nerazim feared the Khala's apparent lack of individuality.

No, none of that matters!  Judicator are bad people all around, and no Protoss that isn't Dark Templar has an IQ high enough to see that the Judicator suck.  That's not only shallow, but really insulting to the Templar. The thing I like about Templar in Starcraft is that they have their own views on things, and while they might listen to the Judicator, they're still people with their own sense of honor and addition to Protoss culture. Mesta wastes so much time making Judicator Amdor look stupid that no Protoss other than Xerana gets any characterization.

You show 'im, Aldaris!  By Crazybee2.

Xerana...?  Well, she creeps me out.  First of all, why is she going after Xel'Naga artifacts all by herself? Wouldn't she need some help with that?  Like maybe someone to work on translating languages, digging things up, or someone to fly her ship?  What if rocks fall on her and she has no one to call?  Secondly, despite getting some actual attention from Mesta, we don't really know who she is.  Sure, she's Dark Templar, but that's a culture, not characterization.  We simply have no reason to know why she does anything.

Third, this sentence was used to describe her:

"....And she'd been unable to save her Protoss brothers, but perhaps that was for the best.  The newly awakened phoenix creature was also part of the Xel'Naga mysery, and Xerana was glad that she had witnessed its birth."

What?  I can't even....that's so friggin' stupid.   That's like saying you're glad you witnessed the Holocaust. And it was "for the best" she couldn't rescue people?  Many people died to feed the Xel'Nagan creature, and regardless of how you feel about the crystalline entity or its victims, watching people get dissolved into energy is something only a true demento would want to see.  Or is Xerana so wrapped up in love for the Xel'Naga and its works that she doesn't care about anything that doesn't have to do with them?

Thing is, she's a Dark Templar, and the Xel'Naga are responsible for the existence of the Khala.  Therefore, anything the Xel'Naga left behind would be something that the Dark Templar would either react to with suspicion or cautious curiosity, unless the DT involved has individual reasons to feel otherwise.  I can't imagine many Dark Templar think all that highly of the Xel'Naga.   Particularly if the Xel'Naga create a thing that OBLITERATES HUNDREDS OF YOUR SPECIES ALL AT ONCE.  Or does Xerana hate Khalai Protoss so much that she's happy they're dead?

Okay, so what would have been a proper way to go about it?  Have the Protoss crew simply be out scouting.  Because Judicator have gone down in authority since the end of Starcraft, Amdor could just be part of the crew in some capacity, maybe a bit snarky from the loss of his position.  Or maybe he was a low ranking Judicator without much authority.  The Judicator have to have some kind of hierarchy progression.

Koronis needs to be a bigger character, and make more decisions.  Maybe snark back at Amdor a time or two.  Xenara, the artifact expert, should have been a part of the crew, and actually care about their continued existence.  She and Koronis should be jointly responsible for destroying or subduing the Xel'Nagan creature so that it doesn't murder everyone.  Maybe Amdor could be the one to argue that the "artifact" should be studied despite the risk, but then nearly gets killed.  Even so, he grieves the loss of the thing, wishing it hadn't been necessary to kill it.  And then Xenara makes a distrustful comment about the Xel'Naga, saying that if they created such a powerful creature, then who knows what they were capable of.

That wasn't hard.  It really wasn't.  But the theme of this book is laziness, so eh.

You of course notice that I'm going off on a lot of Protoss stuff.  Well, that's because there isn't a lot of showing from everybody else.  Especially the Zerg.   Kerrigan is going for the Xel'Naga artifact because...something.  It sends out a psionic signal that catches her attention.  Huh.  Keep in mind that at no time during Starcraft or Brood War does Kerrigan so much as mention the Xel'Naga.  It's not even clear if she knows anything about them.  So why would she prioritize solving one of their mysteries above making sure she controls the swarm?  At this point, she's still got the cerebrates to destroy, the UED to do something about, and the Protoss to interfere with.

Whatever.  It's not like the Zerg do anything more than show up and kill people.  Infest some dogs.  Stuff. It's painfully obvious that Mesta doesn't know anything about the infestation process, but I do admit that it's sort of interesting about how literal he is about the Zerg taking genetics from creatures and incorporating it into the swarm.

As for the Dominion, they're likewise there for no reason, other than to make Duke look like an absolute generic moron.  Mengsk has no reason to be more than slightly interested in an alien artifact, much less suspect that it'll help him keep the throne.  Sadly, it would have been so much easier for him to have attempted to rescue Bhekar Ro due to political pressure, or simply from seeing the Zerg and Protoss going nuts over a thing.  So easy, so logical, and so not done.

So when a story is advertised about three different races trying to accomplish something, and only one race has any logical reason to be there, that's some pretty hard failure right there.

I made you a cake, Mr. Mesta.

I guess I should talk about the people that live on the planet.  They're supposed to be interesting, or something.  So these people chose to colonize this planet and make an independent life for themselves, only the planet has really bad weather, extremely deadly wheat spores, and just plain takes a lot of work to make livable.  Apparently so many people have died that anything besides agricultural work doesn't really happen.

I'm spoiled, maybe.  Thing is, I'm a big fan of Robert Heinlein's Farmer in the Sky, and Heinlein does a much better job of talking about the moods of those who go out of their way to settle in uncomfortable places. These are the people determined to be independent, to create their own communities, and not let anyone tell them what to do.  They believe that hard work makes the man, and in the value of a good woman.  They also think very bad things about those that can't cope.  But most of all, pioneers aren't stupid.  If a place really can't be settled, they'll leave.  It's not like the K-Sector isn't mysteriously wealthy with inhabitable planets.

Awkward science fiction covers are the best.

Everyone on Bhekar Ro feels very hollow.  There's lots of names, but none of them really amount to characters.  The trouble is, the settlement is failed by Mesta's narrative.  Take Cyn McCarthy, for example. Forgetting for the moment that her first name is really dumb, all we know about her is from flat descriptions. Mesta tells us that she's a widow interested in Octavia's brother, rather than showing her gawk over him, or filing that application that apparently women file to apply for marriage.  I do like the application idea, even if it doesn't seem realistic.  It's a unique detail that could have potentially meant something.

Octavia Bren is the main human character, but what she mostly does is just let the narrative explain her tragic background, watch as her brother dies, watch as the Zerg kill various people, and then start up a pointless friendship with Xenara which has no affect on Octavia's life or the end of the story.  Xenara wants her to convince General Duke not to continue his attacks, because...because it's "not their fight"?  I looked it up, and that's what's in the book.  Octavia fails, not only because she has no say so in front of a general, but because she has no logical reason other than this to convince him to stop.  Apparently Xenara knows more than she lets on, but if she's trying to help a girl convince a cranky general of something, then she should share a little more information, y'know?  It would help if Octavia knew that nukes power the Xel'Naga being.

Anyway, Octavia is supposed to be likable, but she's never given any depth.  It could be said that she's your average girl, but since nobody's really average, we need individual details to hold onto so that we get her character, even when she's not in the scene.  That way we care about her and want to see what happens next time she shows up.   And seriously, the narrative breaks three separate times right after telling us she has to warn everyone of something: "She had to warn the other colonists before the artifact could claim any more lives."  Come on, that's not even dramatic once.

In the end, Octavia does nothing worth mentioning.  She's basically there to react to the artifact, to the Zerg, and to Xenara.  Passive characters like this are okay if they're a supporting character, but Octavia is the main human focus.  And if you're going to be a main character in a book, you need to make choices that affect how thing turn out.  Otherwise there's no point in hanging out with them.  Readers like their characters to make choices, so that we can critique their decisions and think about if we would have made the same ones, or else be impressed by their ability to make choices we wouldn't have thought of.  If they never do anything worth thinking about, we don't care.

That applies to you too, Suzanne Collins.  But we'll get to you later.

While this book does deserve ranting, it's not fun to have a review where I do nothing but talk crap about it. So I'll list a positive.  This book had one good idea, in the sense of implying that the Xel'Naga did more than work on the Protoss and Zerg.  Granted, I think this isn't really congruent with the Starcraft universe, because when the Xel'Naga want to create a race, they appear to put a lot of time and work into it.  They don't abandon singular creations on random planets for no reason.  The Xel'Naga have careful plans.  But that doesn't mean the idea isn't interesting.  It's possible the Xel'Naga tampered with some species so that they would know how to create the Protoss and Zerg.

It could have worked.  Only there are two main problems: the construction of the beast, and the theme of the book.  This "phoenix-like" monster, as well as being lame in description, is too powerful.  It eats nukes? Dissolves entire fleets in a single flash of light?  Yeesh.  Everything has a weakness, and you risk being really boring when a creature in your story doesn't seem to have one.

Rawr!  I'm from the Xel'Naga and I'm here for your soul!

Also, it's pretty implausible that it only feeds on Xel'Nagan creatures.  What kind of group would create something that is designed to eat only their own creations?  If there was some sort of mystic genetic mutating that was involved, as in the beast wasn't so much "eating" the Protoss and Zerg as using them for some ulterior purpose, that would be interesting.  However, since this story has no consequences, it really doesn't matter.  They're all just dead for no reason.  To compound the creepiness, the act of dissolving all the Protoss and Zerg has somehow put life into the Bhekar Ro soil, so that plants and such can grow in it, and now the place isn't such a horrible place to colonize.  And since the creature doesn't eat non-Xel'Nagans, all the humans it zapped reappear.  So basically, the local humans gained from the horrible deaths of many sentient beings.

What's more, they're all cheerful too.  I could understand their cheer if they survived a long battle and won through might instead of the gimmicks of an alien being, but instead they're just cheering while all the reader can think about is the vaporized Protoss.  It's rather like the ending of For a Few Dollars More, where Manco and Colonel Mortimer are exchanging cheesy jokes while piling dead bodies into a wagon, and the way too graphic images of what the bad guy did to Mortimer's sister hang into the viewer's head.  It just doesn't work.  You'd think the 'Toss would follow up on that, too.

That brings me to the theme of this book.  What is it, exactly?  "Don't mess with things beyond your control"?  Thing about that is, you don't know something is beyond your control unless you know what it is. How would I know if a giant hunk of crystal stuck to the ground is an alien entity if I don't poke it?

Also, once you know it's an alien entity, what then?  Xenara had no explanation.  Do you just leave it to sit there, knowing at any point it could wake up and devour?  Huh, if Mengsk had gotten hold of the thing, you know he would have used it just like he used the Zerg on Tarsonis.  This time he'd take the beast and use it to kill the Protoss and Zerg.  Assuming it's possible to do that, of course.  Mengsk is definitely the kind of guy that would try.  You might even call that a good motivation for Mengsk, only he never learns anything about the being other than its general existence.

Okay, so is there a message of not messing in matters too big for us that the author is trying to convey?  I don't get that.  It's the glory of God to hide a matter, and the glory of kings to search it out.  Humans want to know about everything.  Sure, Starcraft is dystopian, but just because we're human doesn't mean we want to destroy every artifact we come across, or use it for money.  There's plenty of us that want to just learn about history and appreciate it for what it is.

Besides, messing with power beyond our imagination is sort of the point of Starcraft.  Not even Starcraft II screwed that up (though I could definitely rant about the direction they took with it).  First you have the Protoss, an elevated race with beautiful technology, using both the glorious Khala and mysterious Dark Templar techniques.  Then you've got the Xel'Naga making their own races, Samir Duran doing whatever the crap he's doing, and several people trying to take hold of the Zerg and use them for their own purposes. Granted, Starcraft has always valued the regular and low over the fabulous, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a good deal of mysticism and exploring the nature of the universe.

And if your theme is "leave well enough alone", then you really shouldn't have Xenara be a paleontologist at all.  That really gives it more of a "don't touch anything if you're not special, you stupid little child" vibe.  At the very least, Xenara should have suggested some alternate option to the other Protoss.  Maybe some way to force the creature back into hibernation or prevent it from zapping people and just go after the Zerg.

Woo!  Random Darkie!

Alright, I've ranted enough about the concept problems with Shadow of the Xel'Naga.  To sum up, the one thing Mesta had going for this book conceptually was the idea of a Xel'Nagan rough draft creature.  By trying to force this into a "all three races race for the prize" idea, he cheapens what could be a very good science fiction plot, if not quite matching with Starcraft.  I'm okay with official novels of a game or movie not being quite right, so long as they're interesting and non-canon.  But the basic concept of Starcraft itself is a war between three races, so if you're going to do a book, re-using this concept isn't automatically interesting. It just forces a label on a story.

Now to the execution.  You might have noticed that I labelled this a "nitpickery" rather than a "how not to write" like I did the other Starcraft official novels.  That's because there are really only two problems with the execution, but they're both so big and encompassing that they alone sink the book, even if the concept had been better thought out.

The first is that this book, worse than any other Starcraft novel, repeats tons and tons of already known information to people who have more than likely already played the game without giving us anything new to be interested in.  I've already mentioned this before, so I'll move on to the single biggest problem with this book.

The phrase "show, don't tell" gets thrown around a lot in modern writing circles, and Shadow of the Xel'Naga fails this harder than a lazy high schooler with no interest in writing.  I have literally never seen a story this....vocal, I suppose.  See, when a character speaks (or when you're talking to someone in person), you can say things like "he proposed to her on the spot".  You can't write that in a narrative.  Why?  Because we'd rather see the details of what's going on.  How did he propose to her?  Did he get on one knee? Release doves?  Play an extremely cheesy song on a radio?  By saying "he proposed to her on the spot", you skip everything that could have been interesting about a proposal.

I picked that as an example because it's one of the things that sticks out in my brain.  Mesta does this nearly every single page.  Here are some more examples.

After three generations, the stubborn settlers refused to give up.

Note that in the example here, "stubborn" and "refused to give up" say essentially the same thing, negating any importance in this sentence.

Half of the colonists' eligible daughters had already filed requests to marry him...

I just wish they would show more of the colonist's culture before killing them off.  It's like a colony of redshirts.

Summoning his surly anger to combat a paralyzing blast of fear, Rasting lunged into his shack and grabbed an old blunderbuss projectile launcher, a pellet weapon that he used for picking off rodents that ate too many of this stores.

An action scene is no time for backstory.  Run ons, ahoy!  To make it worse, he dies a few sentences later, and all we get for an action scene is "he fired again".  No details on dodging or even his death.  Zerg are good for interesting death scenes too.

Unless she convinced the settlers that this was serious, they all might die.

Uh huh.  Mesta, the readers already know that the artifact is dangerous.  You don't have to tell us again.

He was ready for action, and so were his men.  He had ordered them so.

Ready for action, huh?  Why?  And how the crap do you order someone to be ready for action?

Duke had no love for the Zerg either.  In fact, he hated all aliens on general principle.  And now the Zerg and Protoss were tearing each other apart in space.  He couldn't imagine a more entertaining sight.  

Probably the most painful narrative in the book refers to Duke.  Mesta always refers to his character by either stating directly it in the narrative or having him say it himself.  We never learn about Duke from his behavior.

Speaking of which, Mesta has no clue who Duke is.  Duke doesn't behave based on emotion, but by what he thinks is logical.  That's why he allied with Mengsk during Starcraft, because the logic of accepting Mengsk's help overwhelmed any sentimentality he had towards the Confederacy.  Duke barely lifted an eyebrow when Tassadar went nuts on him at Char.  He reacted with only mild surprise to the UED.  General Duke is an old grump, but he's not the person that would go charging in when the Zerg and Protoss can shoot at each other, as the narrative goes on to explain.

I'm done now.  What little potential this book had was destroyed in the lack of thought and poor execution. Gabriel Mesta, maybe the pair that make you up can find better things to do with their time.  Like make cookies or something.

I could really go for some cookies right now.


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