Friday, March 6, 2020

"Gears of War: Aspho Fields," by Karen Traviss--Fiction Review

Good morning to you, my dear internet stranger, on this fine Friday. Today we’re leaving the deep literary ocean of “We Were Liars” and “The Feminine Mystique” to splash around in warm shallower genre waters I’m more accustomed to because I’m a swamp monster.  Today’s book is “Gears of War: Aspho Fields” by Karen Traviss, a military science fiction—and yes, a video game novel. It is written by a woman—so defying stereotypes and all that.

Karen Traviss

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

Obviously, I love the video game, a friend suggested it to me, and I remember I was reticent to play it at the time. It had a reputation of being a shallow action shooter without much story, and that didn’t appeal to me. I feel that this series, including this book named after the series, is proof that sometimes reputations are undeserved.

This story is military science fiction—a subgenre focusing on characters in or affiliated with some military in a science fiction plot. While never a member of the armed forces myself, or ever having a strong desire to be a member—I still love this genre. I find people’s objections to it as a subgenre is because they think “Starship Troopers” before they think “Star Trek.” A lot of “Star Trek” fans, if asked, would be uncomfortable with the claim “Star Trek” is military science fiction—but think about it, Starfleet is a navy that operates in space. In conjunction with exploring and making first contact and all that, they fight wars. Gene Roddenberry probably wouldn’t have been a fan of those stories, but that’s an off-topic debate for somewhere else.

Karen Traviss has a way with military characters where you can tell, without knowing much about her, that she’s done some serious research at some point. And she has, she was a reservist and a defense correspondent, before she was a novelist. This direct experience gives her characters a feeling of authenticity or, at least, enough to fool this random schmuck who has never spent a day in uniform.     

What I don’t love about this book:

Everyone in the story is just so gosh darn earnest. That was painful for me to write in this section because I tend to specialize in writing gosh darn earnest characters myself and then kill them. So clearly, I like those kinds of characters. Their strength is they play on the emotions of a reader in a positive way. The intent of this technique is to endear them to the reader. However, not everyone is an earnest person in real life. So even with most of the world in ruins and humanity down to a large collection of survivors, it’s still unlikely everyone who has survived would be that way. Some people are just shallow dicks, dig down deeper into their personality, and you find a solid, impenetrable, bedrock of dickery—and nothing else.

Even the sarcastic jerk character Baird, just begs for the tiniest of scratching away at his veneer to reveal he’s got a mushy heart of gold all along. Also, if you played the games, that earnest characterization of the protagonists doesn’t quite mesh—in the game, the characters that populate this fictional universe are gallows humor-filled and world-weary. It isn’t until the third game, which Karen Traviss worked on, that they gain this dimension to their character like in her novels.

The focus of this novel and the subsequent books in this series is a little hazy. It isn’t enough to turn me off the books, it’s just there are a lot of flashbacks, and switching between whole self-contained timelines running concurrently with the same characters. In this one, there is the current timeline, the one anyone familiar with the game has experienced.  Then, also, there is the Pendulum Wars timeline, which takes place in the past—a good ole’ fashioned war fought against other humans like my grandpappy fought in before it became fashionable to fight wars against genocidal subterranean monsters. 

***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The genocidal subterranean monsters quip wasn’t a metaphor for anything. That is what this story is about, one day after the greatest world war in human history monsters erupted from the ground and started killing everyone. You know—that old chestnut.

Ok—so maybe that’s a little too quick and too dirty a synopsis—a little more context may be required. This story takes place in a fictional universe where humans evolved and modernized, on a world called Sera—not Earth. After the Pendulum Wars—approximately eighty years of conflict—there was a short peace for the first time in generations for the inhabitants of Sera. Until emergence day, when monstrous humanoids, called the locust, burst out of the ground in a coordinated attack against every human country simultaneously. Humanity, wearied from the world war it had just fought with itself, quickly lost the first war against the locust. They denied the locust the surface of Sera by destroying most of it with their weapon of mass destruction, the hammer of dawn.

This novel simultaneously tells two stories. The first is how the COG, the last remaining human government, obtained the hammer of dawn at the end of the Pendulum Wars. The second is of the events immediately after the first video game’s story when the COG thought they destroyed the locust with another weapon of mass destruction.

We progress through the plot from the points of view of all the characters that surround the protagonist of the video game, a sergeant named Marcus Fenix. A lot of the time, this is via one of the two Santiago brothers, Carlos and Dominic. We see Marcus as a lonely kid growing up in the shadow of two wealthy intellectual parents, both scientists, from Carlos’ point of view because he was Marcus’ best friend. After Marcus’ mother disappears without a trace, Carlos and Marcus soon enlist together to fight in the seemingly endless Pendulum Wars. Dominic, Carlos’ younger brother, enlists shortly after, following their footsteps. All three end up on a secret mission to Aspho fields to steal research from the COG’s rival superpower, which turns out to be the hammer of dawn satellite weapon. During that mission, Carlos is killed.

The present-day story, set some sixteen years later, well after the end of the Pendulum Wars and emergence day, starts when Marcus, Dominic, and the rest of their squad find someone from their past. That person, an old sergeant named Bernadette Mataki, fought with Marcus, Dominic, and Carlos at Aspho fields. This meeting is the event that sets off the whole framework for remembering that battle. In the present storyline, COG forces are predominately concerned with keeping order in what is left of human society, which has been reduced down to just one final major city, Jacinto, and its surrounding settlements.

There is the feeling that the war had been finally won against the locust. That all that is left to do is mop up remnants of the horde. Then little things start hinting that in reality, the lull between attacks only represents the locust forces taking the time to regroup. Before another attack comes, the COG has to reconsolidate their resources, to better protect themselves, and it’s this concern that takes up the main action of this part of the story. One of the enduring mysteries that tie the two stories together is Dominic trying to finally get the full story of how his brother Carlos died at Aspho Fields. Only two people were present at the time Marcus, who refuses to say anything other than Carlos was a hero—and Bernadette.

The novel ends, when Marcus and his squad are out via helicopter, patrolling near one of the smaller human settlements near Jacinto and can’t find the small city. When they arrive at its coordinates, they find a lake—and nothing else.


The author of this book makes it an exciting post-apocalyptic fight between the remnants of humanity and monsters, faithful to the source material, but where the narrative really shines is in her characterizations. I love video games and their potential for storytelling by giving their audience the chance to participate and vicariously live through their stories, but modern games with big budgets—like Gears of War—rarely have slower points in the narrative. Video games need to be fun interactive games for their players first, and stories second, when they forget that formula, you get movie-esque experiences that can quickly alienate their audience a la the Metal Gear games. Some people like Metal Gear—I’m one of them—but their tendency to break up gameplay for little ten minute movies at a stretch isn’t for every gamer. Since Gears of War the game doesn’t do that, we don’t ever get to see its characters not fighting for their lives, and thus miss out on all the other facets of their existence.

Traviss, in this novel, gets to define the psychological existence of these people, living at the end of their world, fighting what often looks like an increasingly hopeless last resistance for decades. Her military experience informs the character of those people trying to keep themselves and their home together in not just one war but two.

How she finally reveals the plot point of what happened to Carlos in the closing days of the Pendulum Wars is one of those biting truths about war. Not everyone’s brother, who dies in a battle, died a grand heroic way, which is what Marcus was keeping from Dominic all these years. Carlos died because he made a stupid decision, got others killed in the process, and ultimately his end served no higher purpose. The only heroic thing that could be said about his final moments is he managed to not get Marcus killed as well. No one wants to find out that their loved one died in battle because they were young and did something stupid. Unfortunately, twenty-year-olds aren’t known for making the best decisions, and there were several hints along the way in the novel that Carlos wasn’t a great fit as a soldier, and was too impulsive. This story device rings depressingly real, and it wouldn’t have been as effective if Traviss gave him that more significant, more cinematic end.   

Parting thoughts:

Keeping my parting thoughts short here—I just want to acknowledge that there is a literary stigma for books such as this. Movie adaptations, and video game novel adaptations, or companion pieces, in this case, don’t usually get reviewed, or if they do—not by prominent critics. Certainly, I’m not a prominent critic myself, I write a blog that has obscurity in the name, but I question the validity of this status quo. I think it has less to do about the actual content of the story and more from the prejudice in the literary community that sees novels as a more legitimate form of storytelling.

There is the perception that books can be a source for other, lesser, forms of storytelling to take inspiration from and even be considered successes. Take one of my favorites, for example, “The Shawshank Redemption” it was nominated for several academy awards and was critically considered a masterpiece by more than one critic. It began its life as a short story by Stephen King, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” That all seems about right, now imagine it went the other way and was a movie first that later was adapted into a novel or short story. Would the final product still be considered an award-worthy masterpiece? Are there any stories that go opposite of that current of novel/novellas flowing into movies and are regarded as high art? Surely, there are some, I can’t think of any, but can you?   

I think this is nothing more than elitism. It’s why most people can read video game novel, and immediately, without knowing anything about the story being told, an internal voice whispers negatively about the quality—lesser.

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