Tag Archives: Alpha Centauri

Review: Dragon Sun

In general, I’m not into tie-in novels because quality can be an issue. Also, there’s often issues with whether or not the books Really Happened.

Take, for example, Star Trek. There was a novel series, Day Of Honor, with a TOS book, a TNG book, a DS9 book and a Voyager book. I got the TNG book free with a magazine. I think I’ve read it twice, and it never quite succeeded in being interesting. I read another TNG book many years ago, looking it up I think it was Intellivore, and that wasn’t very interesting, either. On the other hand, I read a DS9 graphic novel, and some of a novelisation of the DS9 pilot, and I recall enjoying those. I heard a TOS audiobook, Envoy, that I rather enjoyed.

Good, bad, or ugly, however, none of these books are considered canon, so there seems to be little point in them.

There were a couple of Voyager novels that were supposed to be canon, and bits of them were written into episodes, Mosaic and Pathways, and as I recall they fell afoul of the same sort of revisionism that happened to the Star Wars Expanded Universe recently: the “oh no, they’re not canon after all” syndrome.

Babylon 5’s tie-in novels were all supposed to be canon, though this too has fluctuated a little, they now “all contain canonical elements”, one has been described as “90% canon”, and so on. There were quality issues here, too: some were good, but I particularly remember “The Touch of Your Shadow, the Whisper of Your Name” as being very not good. And surprisingly similar to the later yawn-fest Thirdspace.

Stephen King’s Dark Tower series has a different approach to canonicity. The books, the graphic novels, and the long-rumoured movie can all be considered canon, even when they’re different or contradict each other, they can all exist on “different levels of the Tower” (though you have to wade through rather a lot of books to find out what that means).

The book that I’m writing about today, but have thus far completely managed to avoid actually talking about, is the second of a tie-in trilogy of books to the computer game Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri.

Here’s my review of Book 1.

Due to the kind of game it is, each time you play it there are significant differences: one time through, a faction can be wiped out very early, the next time they could stay through to the end. In effect, what’s “canonical” in one play through, is unlikely to be “canonical” in another. There are several ways to win the game, and you can only win in one of the ways in each playthrough, so for that game the others are, strictly speaking, “non-canonical”.

So books set in that universe, then, can just take the many familiar elements of the game, flesh out the inner parts of the world that we don’t get to see much of when we actually play the game, add more characters, perhaps even give more character to the characters we already know, and tell a story using those pieces. Canon, in this sense, doesn’t really matter if the story is good.

In the first book, the author, Michael Ely, managed to maintain an overall status quo: none of the faction leaders were “out of the game”, as it were.

In the second book, Yang and Deirdre are the focus. Lal is somewhat a shell of his former self after the events of Centauri Dawn. Deirdre’s tech is limited, though the Gaians have been working very hard on Centauri ecology, and hybrid farms, and harnessing the power of mindworms. We start to hear the Voice of Planet. Morgan is trying to expand his territory into Gaian territory, with Santiago backing him up. Yang has been isolated on another continent, and is looking to introduce himself to the other factions from a position of strength, to become a full member of the Planetary Council.

Yang is also dealing with rebellion in his own bases, while he also prepares to reveal his secret army. We see some of the “inhuman experiments” referred to in the game, and the “nerve staple” atrocity. All right!

Not wanting to say too much, but I did like the ending. In the last few pages you’re not sure what to expect, and then BAM!, he twists the knife.

Well played, sir.

Mr Ely was heavily involved in the creation of the game, and here he starts adding things that would be really cool to see in the game (I’ve been playing a Civ IV mod based on Alpha Centauri, so seeing them in that would be just fine, too). In plain Civilization IV, most countries have multiple available leaders, so reading the books, one can pick out potential contenders. Also, Deirdre’s Skyfarms of the book seems to be distinct from the Sky Hydroponics Labs of the game.

Anyway, I enjoyed this book, and for the whole series: so far so good. I’m almost to the end of the usually-expensive-but-I-picked-it-up-relatively-cheap third book in the series, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Review: Centauri Dawn

Deep back in the mists of time (or “1999”, as it is sometimes referred to), I got into the PC game Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. This was my main introduction to games along the lines of Civilization, and in some respects it still stands above other games in the franchise. (I have yet to try Civ V and Beyond Earth.) I’ve also spent time playing the SMAC mod for Civ IV, Planetfall.

I think the main reason for this is that the world and the characters got fleshed out rather a lot more than in other games in the franchise (or even the genre, to be honest). Civ rather relies on your knowledge of the leaders that you play as (Queen Elizabeth I, Bismarck, Genghis Khan and so on), and of various Wonders (You built the Pyramids!). In SMAC, you have to learn the personalities of the leaders, and what each technology, facility, and Secret Project means to the world.

The world was fleshed out further in a series of stories written by Michael Ely, who worked on the game, casting the faction leaders and directing the Secret Project movies (one of which is above).

The first story was released in episodic form on the official website, in the build-up to the release of the game (behind the times, I finished reading it last week). Interestingly, one of the major characters had a different name through most of the story, before it was corrected towards the end. Journey To Centauri (and the free buildup-to-the expansion story Centauri: Arrival) can be found at alphacentauri2.info.

The novels themselves can be tricky to track down: I got lucky and found the first two books second-hand for less than $5 each.

The third book is much harder to track down, when it’s on Thriftbooks it tends to be over $50 (for a paperback?), and even second-hand on Amazon, sometimes it’s over $50, most of the time it’s over $30. I picked it up when it was $13.62 (plus the shipping), which comparatively is a bargain, but I must confess I’m not fond of paying that much for a new book, so I have a slight twitch about that.

So as a kind of celebration of starting reading Book 3, I thought I’d post my thoughts about Book 1 (which may end up being shorter than all the buildup to it).

Centauri Dawn coverCentauri Dawn, by Michael Ely

Overall, I enjoyed the story. It was nice having the world fleshed out somewhat – in the game, we do hear from characters other than the faction leaders, but in the book we meet quite a few other inhabitants of the human settlements (mainly Peacekeeper and Spartan, as the book focuses on those two – the other factions come in later books).

There was also satisfaction in recognising nods to research discoveries, base facilities and so on from the game. It was interesting that though the Spartans are a focus of the book, and the game makes a passing reference to an early attack on the Spartans by mindworms, that that event also gets only a passing reference in hindsight in the book.

Also a source of interest is significant things that weren’t in the game. Alpha Centauri was before the Civ games (that I know of, at least) where each nation gets unique buildings and units, and so AC doesn’t have that kind of differentiation, either. It does in other ways, but not that way. So Santiago’s elite soldiers, the Myrmidons, are quite significant in the book, but not in the game. Were the game that little bit more recent, one suspects that would be different.

My favourite insider reference is towards the end of the book, and it’s good enough that I don’t want to spoil you of anything, where a certain thing happens, and I got “I recognise that setting!” Not a technology, unit type, base enhancement, secret project or anything like that, just one of the setup options from when you set up the game. And it gives extra flexibility for the other novels in the series.

I had fun. Thumbs up on this one. I thought it was a good story in its own right, you don’t have to have played the game to follow it. Though as a fan of the game, if you like playing computer games, I think it’s one worth checking out.