Last week, Elite Dangerous’ creator, Frontier Developments, released a new book. Titled Elite Dangerous: Premonition, the volume is a canonical story within the universe. INN, in the interest of keeping abreast of, and reporting on, the lore aspect of ED, has tasked me with reading and analyzing Premonition.
To that end, I am going to be breaking the analysis into two major themes. First, I will look at the story as a piece of fiction and assess how it reads. Second, I will try to piece together how to fits in with, and disrupts, the lore of the ED universe. I will try to avoid spoilers by and large, but, honestly, if you have been following ED at all you already know how the story is going to unfold.
Writing is hard
Scratch that. In today’s world, you can’t swing a cat without hitting two bloggers and a critic (and the irony of this statement is not lost on me). I cannot, in good faith, say writing is hard.
Writing well is hard.
While not as terrifying as, say, public speaking or a root canal, creative writing is near the top of the list of things that students and adults, alike, would love to avoid. It isn’t easy to narrate a plot that is deep and engaging with characters that people give a damn about.
It doesn’t come easily, and I challenge anyone to try.
That is when an author has complete control over their universe and all the characters like some capital ‘G’ god. This is infinitely harder when trying to write fiction that accurately reflects a dynamic universe (i.e. a video game) filled with human beings who play active roles, real places, and events and timelines. As such, my hat is off to Drew Wagar who has shown, on multiple occasions, his ability to do just that.
That being said, there are some bones to pick here.
First, I am not a fan of the pacing and scattershot point of view that the author has chosen to introduce the story and characters. During the first third of the book, the reader is bombarded with characters and perspectives. In order to do so, and not end up with a Tad-Williams-esque tome, the actual sections end up feeling short and choppy.
In my opinion, a number of the peripheral arcs could have been addressed in a different, more coherent way: either have one of the main characters discover information the reader needed know, or just create a vast third-person narrative to pass on the knowledge. As it is, the reader is adrift in characters with no time to become attached to any of them. This is just as well since a lot of them disappear as fast as they arrive – until the end of the book. It really comes down to a right tool at the right time.
Next, the author relies on a few frustrating “on that I will say no more” obfuscations to hint that there are more plot lines to tease but not disclose yet. Admittedly, this could be a reflection of Frontier’s plans or just trying to tease out another book deal. From my point of view, it feels cheap and could have been avoided in all cases. If it’s a mystery, leave it a mystery, and don’t make the reader wish to beat the information out of a smug omniscient character. Similarly, the author took a page from Jordan in a number of catch phrases that became repetitive; the “imperial style” of how this mechanical thing happened was a common phrase.
Character motives were also a frustratingly mixed bag. In the majority of cases, the author has taken the well-known flat characters (the engineers and the powerplay faction heads) and tried to give them more complex motivations and stories. This is a good thing, but if you are going to do so, then do so for all of them that you are going to use, not only when it is convenient.
For a spoiler-y example, while the Emperor and her Commander are given deep and complicated motivations and address the flat fronts they present in the game directly, the People’s Princess is an empty foil who is exactly as flat as the game suggests. And, before I am accused of carrying water for a pretty blue-haired character, the main characters, the emperor, and everyone around them go out of their way to state and restate just how trivial the character is.
If we were only going to look at the faction characters in a shallow publicly-facing way, that’s fine. If we are going to look into their backgrounds and motivations, that is also fine (and likely better). Just be consistent. There are too many characters all around, so if there are unneeded foils, then find a way to create one interesting and deep antagonist to drive the plot.
Finally, Frontier has forced the author to take a lot of creative license with lore. This one is going to be a big spoiler, but Elite has had aliens in it for a very long time. If you have done even a little bit of a reading into the older Elite lore, spacefaring aliens are not only a thing, but in some ways the norm for the galaxy. The Thargoids were a fairly-well documented and widespread thing (as were the Oresians). Having the big reveal hinge on the discovery of alien life with the last thirty years of background material in mind stretched my disbelief.
Once you get through the first third of the book, the author really does a great job of managing the perspective of the characters that have (belatedly) become the focus of the plot. And then, in the fourth act, reverting back to smash cut scene changes really drives the energy of the climax. As I said earlier, you have to know when to use this style to build up energy. Here, it is acceptable, whereas the abrupt changes in the beginning felt distracting and unnecessary.
Despite the rocky start, and what I said about a lot of irrelevant characters, the characters that do end up rising to the top are genuinely interesting. Not only did the author give them a good plot to follow, but he did a great job of making his readers care if they live or die. I actually empathized with them and could believe their motivations, as opposed to just feeling that they were vehicles to move the preordained plot forward. Even knowing the news of the day and how to story had to end, I was still hoping against hope that their might be a deus ex machina ending to it all.
This is another good thing I have to give credit for. Despite the fact that Salomé was clearly a beloved character to the author, and one that was hoped to have survived the live event, Drew had the integrity to kill her. That is no small, or easy, task. Especially if you have a hope for a repeating serial, or at least a trilogy, to come from it all.
Next, the author throws around great fan service and locks down a number of mechanics. Frontier has left a lot things vague throughout the game so it is nice to have things more clearly set in cannon. As a lover, and follower, of game lore in general, and Elite lore in particular, it really felt like this story was a part of the wider Elite universe. There were some inconsistencies, but it didn’t feel like too much.
Finally, it must be acknowledged that the author tied in the player input well and gave them all a credible place in canon. Drew has actually done a pretty good job of trying to tie down “independent spacers” (players) into the actual story arc. To do this and still write his story, a few facts were mashed up here and there, but that is to be expected.
If you are a lore hound and you like to dig deep into the story of what drives your video gaming experience, then you should absolutely read this and all the official canon. Elite has a long tradition of writing good stories about its IP, and there is a great deal to learn and know.
If you are not a lore hound, and just want to know the specifics about what is going on and the players who are driving the game, you should read the various news sites, reddit, or where ever you get your video game news to follow just what has happened and who the real players were who made the discoveries.
If you are looking for a good sci-fi novel, then my vote is to pick up both of Drew’s books. Despite my criticism of the early portions of the book, they are more than overcome when the book settles into its stride, and the solid execution of the fourth act makes up for any stumbling blocks along the way.