Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Where Dead Space: Martyr (and most other prequel novels) fail

I have no particular bone to pick with Dead Space: Martyr. In fact, it scared me so much in the first 30 chapters that I had to put it down for a couple of months, which was a welcome feeling, given my love for the game. My problem with it is that it falls into the same trap as many other prequel novels, and therefore became more of a disappointment than a normal book, simply because I had been enjoying it so much.

Again, before I get started I know it's hard to write something in a universe that isn't entirely pinned down, perhaps where its own creators don't really know what's going on. I get that. I do that for a living. What I'm attempting to say is how this kind of disappointment can be avoided, and to do that, I'm going to spoil a whole bunch of things.

The overall concept of the book, I liked. The core idea is that Altman is not a prophet, and in fact is fighting against the Marker, but he's murdered by 'the government' and turned into a martyr to further the cause of Unitology. No real surprises there, given Unitology is based on a similar-sounding religion created by a similarly ill-fated prophet (though the government assassination is up for grabs in that case).

My problem with Dead Space: Martyr, and with most prequels in general, is this : just because you know what has to happen doesn't mean you can't put a twist on it. We all know Altman is seen as a saviour. It's interesting that he wasn't, and as I said, I liked that part of it, and it was inevitable that he had to die, but his death could have had meaning. No meaning that anyone else could ever have found - he was supposed to be assassinated, so people would follow his teachings without him getting in the way. But he could have died for something he believed in, rather than dying because the story dictated it. I shall give an example.

In the book, the way he dies is this : two of the other characters salvage data and recreate the necromorphic material that comes from feeding the Marker's projected signal into dead tissue. They make a monster, using one of the other dead characters. They throw Altman in an arena with it, with only a spoon to defend himself. Presumably, this does not go well.

Altman's last thoughts are of the evil that will be done in his name, and how awful it is to know ahead of time what's going to happen. Personally, I probably would have been thinking about something else, like the people I love (e.g. his dead girlfriend) but, hey, I'm just going to figure that's where our understandings of the character differ. However, the fact remains that Altman dies essentially because he has to, and for no other reason. He doesn't make a heroic last stand, or stare into the eyes of his killers as the monster bears down on him, or show any shred of moral fibre. He simply dies.

And this is where I take issue with a good many prequels. I've played Dead Space, 1 & 2, read the comic and watched Downfall. I know what's going to happen. I'm not surprised Altman dies. I was expecting it. But it could have been something more. In other cases, where I haven't known a book was a prequel, the deaths seem even more ridiculously far-fetched, because I don't understand the causality. There's a simple reason for that : causality is working backward.

Instead of saying, "Here is the story I want to tell, and here is the outcome I would like it to have," it seems most prequels begin with the endpoint, then work their way to the beginning. Not that this is necessarily a bad way to write - I myself almost always begin with my ending in mind, so I know which direction to face - but when it constrains the story to illogical depths, it becomes a problem.

I'm thinking here of A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge. The ending of that book, for having not read A Fire Upon the Deep, is excruciatingly unfulfilling. A beloved character does the Oatesian manoeuvre, stepping out into a blizzard because, well, why not? Another character succumbs to a type of madness because... well, why not? And a third character... Let's just say you've probably guessed where I'm going with this by now.

There are similar cases of such, like Robert Jordan's New Spring, or my own eagerly anticipated stab to the heart, Mouse & Dragon, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. Mouse & Dragon tries to set up the futures of the other characters in their universe by having the main character - my personal favourite - comment on things that will never be fulfilled. For example, at one point a young boy is affecting the dice in a strange way. The main character says, "You'll have to show me more about that, one day." Then, suddenly, the book is over.

I understand why they do this. It's to add dimension and depth to a pre-existing world, and to reference events that have already passed, in most people's minds, even though chronologically they're yet to happen. But show me one person who likes obvious foreshadowing, and not for its humorousness, and I'll show you a person who doesn't understand story.

Spiderman 3 : "They're my friends. I'd die for them." Good work signing your own death warrant.
Event Horizon : "Where we're going, you won't need eyes." This is not even foreshadowing. Stop it.
Every RPG ever : "I sure hope I don't turn evil someday." Well, great.

Foreshadowing can be done well. It's essentially like writing a good murder mystery. All of the clues have to be there from the beginning, but they should only make sense when the proper context comes into play. In this way, killing a character in a prequel novel makes as much sense as, "The butler did it!" There's no motivation, no emotion, and no closure. It just is, and that's not what stories are about. If stories were just facts, they would be textbooks, and we would hate them.

Prequels that do foreshadowing well, I hear you ask? Well, now, there's a doozy, but let me give it a shot. Dead Space: Downfall, the animated movie, actually does a very good job of setting up what takes place on the Ishimura moments before the beginning of the first game. Local Custom and Scout's Progress, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller and set in the same universe as Mouse & Dragon, are both prequel novels, but self-contained and thoroughly enjoyable. The fact that Mouse & Dragon is the sequel to Scout's Progress, making it a prequel between prequels, is part of its confusion, but equally confusing is that they managed to get it so right, then so wrong.

Less well-known, but no less brilliant, is the tie-in prequel Visser, by K. A. Applegate, in the Animorphs universe. And, in terms of games, Professor Layton and the Last Spectre seems (so far, to me, at least) to be fulfilling the role of prequel very adequately.

What did all of these works accomplish? It's very simple. They told a story, a moving story, a logical story, a self-contained story, that just happened to be related to something else. And really, that's what every good prequel should be.

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