Review: 'Death Drop' (D-Evolution, vol. 1), by Sean Allen
Pueblo, CO, Vintage Six Media, October 2011
Trade paperback $19.95 (560 pages; Amazon)
EPUB, Kindle, MOBI, PDF $9.95
Hoo-hah! Roscoe, does this bring back memories! Memories of all the rip-roaring space operas that I devoured during my junior-high and high-school years. Among my favorites were the Chalice of Death stories by Calvin M. Knox, in Science Fiction Adventures magazine; the last of which was the wonderfully-titled “Vengeance of the Space Armadas” (collected into Lest We Forget Thee, Earth by Ace in 1958).
A hundred thousand years ago, there had been a planet called Earth. It had been a proud world ruling a thousand vassal stars, but its stellar empire had turned upon and annihilated their conquerors, and wiped the name of Earth from the maps of space. ~~~~ But Earthmen still survived . . . a strange race of worldless men and women, by tradition advisers to rulers, but never themselves ruling. Wanderers through myriad planets, their origin was a half-forgotten legend. … 1
It was later revealed that “Calvin M. Knox” was a pseudonym of Robert Silverberg, who had hacked out the Knox stories in his spare time while a college student, for beer money. Silverberg said later that they made it hard for the critics to accept him as a “serious author”. [Ed Valigursky's 'racy' cover likely didn't help. Update: See Mr. Silverberg's comments.]
You know what? I’m damn glad that he wrote them, because uncritical teenagers need blood-&-thunder space opera just as much, if not more, as they need Serious Literature.
I suppose video games have assumed the popular-fiction role that pulp magazines such as Captain Future, Planet Stories, and Startling Stories used to fill. Kudos to Sean for bringing space opera back to print with his “D-Evolution” s-f novels, of which Death Drop is the first.
Taking place 400,000 years after the last known humans were exterminated, the universe is inhabited by a hodgepodge of aliens and (presumably) the descendants of bioengineered intelligent Terran animal peoples. It is split between two warring forces; the totalitarian Durax, who are trying to conquer everything alive with their mighty mind powers, and the Dissension Army, a military coalition of all those trying to remain free. Between the two are those space smugglers, black marketers, and other criminals who are only out for themselves.
Dezmara Strykar has built up a reputation among the enemies of the Durax as the top smuggler in the universe; the one who always gets through in her sleek ship, the “Ghost”, with her cargo. She invariably ventures into the most distant corners of space. This is because she has a secret: She awoke fully-grown eight years ago, in a cryogenic unit in an abandoned space freighter. She isn’t sure, but she suspects that she is an extinct human. Her smuggling runs are partly opportunities to solve the mystery of her past; to seek out others like her. But suddenly she becomes the focus of a universal manhunt! An enemy agent in a spaceship just like hers kills an important Dissension Army officer and casts doubt on their greatest weapon against the Durax. Now the Dissension Army fears that she may be a killer and traitor.
Dezmara is not totally alone. Her engineer and weapons expert is Simon Latranis, a Kaniderelle who is obviously of coyote ancestry. There are many Furries among the Dissension Army; notably Captain Talfus Zandre, head of Special Ops (a Waadi; an alien fish-man), Lieut. Malo Schunkari, his closest subordinate (a Moxen hulking bull-man), Major Otto Von Holt, the commander of the Army’s elite commando battalion (otter), and Dr. Artemus Blink, the chief medical officer (porcupine or hedgehog) — potential allies, if they can be convinced of her innocence. There are other Furries, good and evil, among the civilians and the Durax, not to mention aliens who don’t look like anything from Earth.
Allen has apparently sunk a lot of money into this. In addition to the publisher’s making Death Drop available in five formats – printed book, e.pub, Mobi, Kindle, and .pdf – Allen has commissioned British s-f/fantasy artist Matt Dixon to paint detailed illustrations of fourteen of his cast, eight of whom are Furries – on his website only, unfortunately; not in the book.
(The illustrations are also for sale as posters, so they aren’t a pure artistic expense.)
He has also made an extensive Death Drop Con Tour during October and November 2011 to fan conventions throughout the U.S. & Canada to promote the book and related posters, T-shirts, and buttons. I hope that it pays off for him.
The cornerstone of his merchandising enterprise is the novel. And, regrettably, the novel is the weakest part. Sadly, it is not good space opera. The plot is solid enough, but it does not move swiftly as space opera should. Allen’s writing throughout is bloated with exaggerated adjectives. The Durax are “a vile race of creatures”, ruled by a “wretched overlord”. They are “heinous conquerors”. Their mind powers are “their cruel gift”. They have “constructed giant killing machines to act as their murderous limbs” in “a new era of butchery and terror.”
A black feeling blossomed in the hearts of the Mewlatai like a poisonous flower—they blamed themselves for the spawn of the Durax devices and the savagery they left in their wake.
That is all from the first three paragraphs on the first two pages!
Yes, I know Star Wars was just as bad (“…You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy ...”), but all the critics have agreed that Lucas’ dialogue was laughable and the worst thing about the movies; to be avoided, not emulated. Allen’s action is constantly bogged down in pompous exposition. As almost every writing class will emphasize, “Show us; don’t just tell us!”
A hallmark of space opera is the flashy battles between Good and Evil. Since the 1930s these have featured stunners, blasters, disintegrators, ray guns – with the exception of the light sabers of Star Wars, distance rather than close-range weapons. As Dixon’s cast portraits emphasize, the Durax and the Dissension Army appear to rely on regular sabers and swords, spears, morningstars, and battle hammers – strangely obsolete weapons for a universe-spanning civilization. If the Durax have mind control powers, you’d expect to fight them at long-range; not hand to hand.
“Why not land?” Malo grunted over the quiet purr of the freighter’s engines.
“I believe he’s scanning the surrounding area for any signs of an ambush.”
“Good idea. Why not we do?” (p. 19)
Why does Lieut. Malo Schunkari, the Moxen bull-man, talk funny? Because all Moxen would rather sing than talk (p. 20):
Moxen use of spoken language was elementary at best. They were a simple, hardworking race with little use for the complications of words. Malo spoke no more but began to sing. Song was the purest expression of a Moxen’s emotions and could be as varied and as breathtaking as the stars in the universe. In this instance, Malo was singing to his friend of his commitment and brotherhood. His humming started in a low tone then gently rose in a beautiful, melodic crescendo. The mesmerizing aria reminded Talfus of swimming in the azure waters of the Zwale River on a lazy autumn afternoon while the Third Sun gently caressed the cool, glistening current with rays of golden amber. It was the most exquisite sound he had ever heard, and although it only lasted a moment, it felt like he had lived a lifetime bathed in its glorious resonance. He knew it was a rare honor for a Moxen to bestow this gift on alien ears; deeply moved, Talfus knew at that moment that he would concede and let his friend stay by his side.
Okay. There is a reason. It’s not a very believable reason, but it’s a reason. I suppose I’d be guilty of species prejudice if I said the hulking bull-behemoth doesn’t look like his voice would be capable of gently rising into “a beautiful, melodic crescendo.” Yet what does song “as breathtaking as the stars in the universe” mean?
Note that this is the civilization of “the universe”, not “the galaxy”. Allen doesn’t think small.
The time-sense is confusing – or confused. It is later revealed that there are no Humans in the universe because the Durax destroyed Earth and killed them all. If this happened 400,000 years ago, this war has been going on for an Awfully Long Time!
Humans have been gone from the universe for so long that nobody knows what they were really like; “they only existed in ancient legends and stories: stories most people considered nothing more than myths told by old dusters and deep space pilots that had been in the dark too long.” (p. 176-177) But Dr. Blink “was considered the foremost authority in biology and medicine across multiple species in the universe before the reign of the Durax” (p. 161). Is he, then, and are the others over 400,000 years old? They don’t seem so.
Allen successfully brings off a major surprise early in the story, and when the first major battle takes place, it’s reassuring that at least 20th-century guns and explosives are used instead of the primitive weapons shown in Dixon’s art. The battle is adequately described, not counting the purple prose.
One complaint is about a flaw that all too many Furry authors are guilty of. There is no real reason for the anthropomorphic animal characters to be anything but human. The bull-man, the otter-man, the porcupine-man, and several exotic aliens – notably Sergeant Graale, the awesomely craggy Garnukdeen volcano-man whom bullets ricochet harmlessly off of – are nicely introduced in detail. For example, here is Dezmara’s coyotelike engineer, Simon Latranis (p. 151):
He was a medium-sized Kaniderelle at just over five feet tall, not including the pointy-tipped ears that sat attentively on top of his head. The backs of his paws, and the extent of his arms that was exposed when he pulled up the sleeves of his blue, grease-stained smock, were covered in short reddish-brown fur. His tail was of the same color, but the fur that covered it was considerably longer than anywhere else on his body, and at the moment, the bushy appendage curled from behind him and rested motionless in his lap. The insides of his arms, neck, and ears were lined in white and contrasted sharply with the rest of his body. He had distinctive markings on his face that started on his snout and continued onto his brow, then traced around his eyes like a mask and gave him a mischievous look, particularly when he wasn’t wearing his goggles.
… but then none of them (except Graale) do anything more than a Sylvester Stallone- or Arnold Schwarzenegger-type movie he-man couldn’t do. Their Furry status is colorful window dressing, but nothing more.
“…You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy ...” Oh, there is one of these, too – the Luxon Station space port built on the remains of a dead planet: Trinity Major. That’s not a complaint; Luxon is one of the worst hellholes that I’ve ever seen in all space opera. Finally, Allen gets something right!
To be fair, there is a lot that is right. As I said, the basic plot is solid. Dezmara’s disguise as The Ghost is convincingly effective. Some of the suspenseful battles and other action scenes go on for pages and pages, and not just because the writing is padded. The constant flaws are annoying, but not bad enough to turn off the reader.
I won’t elaborate upon this last criticism because it would be a major spoiler, and Allen may mean the point as a deliberate surprise. It is, but I think that it is also a mistake. It weakens the impact of the story, which has too many problems already. If you have read the first half of the novel that is from the author’s website, you will know what I mean.
It is very generous of Allen to give away the first half of Death Drop. You can decide for yourselves if the whole book is worth buying.
Despite my kvetching, I have on the whole enjoyed it. (It’s hard to find good space opera in these days of Serious Literature.)
Let’s hope that Allen learns from the critiques of this first novel, and that his next D-Evolution adventure, announced as Daelekon, is better.
If you haven’t yet, do look at Allen’s website, if only to see Matt Dixon’s color portraits of the fourteen major characters.
1 See also the Feb. 2005 blog by pseudonymous “Tenser, Said the Tensor”, listing the “Earthless sub-sub-genre of science fiction”; stories in which Earth was long-ago destroyed or abandoned, and surviving humans are today scattered through space. ?