The Book Shelf


Reviewing Crysis: Legion, by Peter Watts


Strange bed-fellows:

First-person shooter meets hard science fiction
Managing Editor, True North Perspective
Originally published at Edifice Rex Online

Full disclosure: As is often the case nowadays, though Peter Watts and I have not met in person, we are on-line acquaintances. He has also quoted me on his blog concerning the state-sanctioned police riots that took place in Toronto last summer (yes, to my considerable pleasure). If that makes my opinions suspect in your mind, please feel free to skip the review below.

Crysis: Legion
By Peter Watts
Del Rey (Mar 22 2011)
Paperback: 320 pages
ISBN-10: 0345526783
ISBN-13: 978-0345526786
Peter Watts in 2007, photo by Dan Brooks.
Peter Watts in 2007, photo by Dan Brooks.

Crysis: Legion is not the new Peter Watts novel I wanted to read. I'm not a fan of military fiction, SF or otherwise, I haven't played a first-person shooter since DOOM shipped with Windows '95, and I almost never read tie-ins even of productions I like.

Worse, the fact that the award-winning Watts, author of the very good apocalyptic Rifters trilogy and of the frankly brilliant Blindsight, has been (presumably) forced by economic circumstance to pen a work for hire video game adaptation is not a happy commentary on the state of the economy, the judgement of science fiction editors, or on Western Civilization in general.

Whatever the circumstances though, this is the first new Peter Watts novel since 2006 and I am happy to report that, if it's not the brilliant follow-up to Blindsight I've been waiting for, it is a much better book than I'd feared it might be. (That said, if you are reading this as a fan of the game I can't tell you whether Watts' adaptation is true to the spirit of the original game.)

I can tell you that, along with compelling action sequences, Watts has brought to this work made for hire more wit, plausible social extrapolation, credible characters and convincing scientific speculations than you'll find in most stand-alone, original, science fiction.

Crysis: Legion is set in 2023 amid accelerated global warming and ecological collapse. Where they haven't disintegrated, governments are cracking down on desperate populations and something terrible has happened to New York City. The city that never sleeps has been "invaded by monstrous fusions of meat and machinery, defended by a private army that makes Blackwater look like the Red Cross, ravaged by a disfiguring plague that gifts its victims with religious rapture while it eats them alive."

It's not often a book's cover copy accurately represents its interior, but this one does, so well I wonder if the author was responsible for it. The novel's themes are all there: the biological speculation, the political and religious commentary and the mordant wit, as well as the narrative's you-are-there feel.

You’ve been thrown into this meat grinder without warning, without preparation, without a clue. Your whole squad was mowed down the moment they stepped onto the battlefield ... it’s not just the aliens that are gunning for you. Your own kind hunts you as a traitor, and your job might be a bit easier if you didn’t have the sneaking suspicion they could be right ...

The sub-texts will be familiar to readers of Watts' fiction or his blog, but it still seems unlikely that this is what Crytek GmbH expected from Watts when they contracted the book. If I'm right, I suppose it's to their credit they published it anyway.

As befits a first-person shooter, the story is narrated by the protagonist, Laurence Barnes, a common soldier become a man/machine hybrid now called Alcatraz. Alternating present-tense battle sections with after-the-fact debriefing/interrogations written as a second-person monologue, the pace and close-up intensity of both sections translate the immediacy of "being" the protagonist in a video game to the printed page very well. Watts is equally skillful in revealing glimpses of the complex background of corporate and government in-fighting responsible for the confused and divided response to the alien invaders.

Speaking of the aliens, that "an enemy that travels among the fucking stars" is in any way vulnerable to current human technology is one of those conceits with which too much science fiction is littered — see the Will Smith vehicle Independence Day or the climax of 2009's Torchwood: Children of Earth, as just two relatively recent and particularly eggregious examples. Watts addresses the question head-on, and offers an ingenious and plausible rationale for the relatively fair fight on show, with nary deus ex machina in sight.

Typically for Watts, he rigorously follows his premise to its logical conclusion; atypically, that conclusion isn't entirely bleak. But neither is it all sunshine and sparkles. We're offered a brutal portrait of street warfare on steroids, complete with "collateral damage" that matters, and an effective simulation of a gamer's point of view.

It’s a smart motherfucker. It sees through my best tricks. I wrap myself in my cloak of invisibility and somehow it knows just where to fire. I hide behind pillars and billboards and it lobs some kind of plasma grenade into its blind spots, coolly flushes its quarry instead of stomping down streets and alleyways in hot pursuit.

It turns into a game of tag. I can take maybe a hit or two from that acoustic death ray without bursting like a grape ...but I’m pretty sure that three blasts would lay me out and a fourth would kill me, assuming this monster didn’t just decide to squash me flat with one of those big clawed feet instead. And nothing I’ve got up my sleeve seems to do more than scratch the paint on its hood ornament. So I lob a sticky mine and fade back around the corner before I even see if I scored. I drop a proximity mine and dive through a manhole while three floors of office crumble to dust on the other side of the street. I start to see patterns: The pinger has a habit of strafing the air with high-frequency click bursts, especially when it can’t see me.

It’s echolocating. No wonder the damn cloak doesn’t work.

When the action slows, Alcatraz is revealed as a compelling and sympathetic character, and even the novel's secondary players read like sketches of real people, if only as seen through the narrator's eyes.

The novel's background, of failing states and predatory corporations, is an extreme but hardly implausible vision of the near future, an ugly, dangerous world with little hope for the weak and downtrodden (and maybe not much for the rich and powerful, either). Nevertheless, the book is sometimes very funny, as with the footnote below, a marketer's response to a proposed promotion of the battle armour's artificial intelligence system, "N2’s Semi-Autonomous NeuroTactical Augmentation AI" (SANTA).

Phil: Marketing has serious doubts about this acronym. Worried that irony might not appeal to target demographic. Suggest something less "edgy" — how about Semi-autonomous Enhanced Combat Ops: Neurointegration and Delivery (SECOND) instead? Might be less offensive to the Christian community as well, since as I understand it Santa is one of their prophets or something. — Tom :) PS: We might also have to lose that ho-ho-ho effect on boot-up.

Crysis: Legion includes too many battles and not enough footnotes for my tastes, but there is considerably more humour than the book's cover would lead you to expect, just as there is more character-development and world-building.

As junk-food goes, Peter Watts has delivered a treat with all the fat and sugar you might want, but made from the healthiest possible organic ingredients.

Crysis: Legion is the work of an honest craftsman delivering a product that not only meets the minimum requirements, but far exceeds them.

For an adult it is a diverting Sunday read. But for that bright teenage boy whose experience with SF (or fiction at all) has been limited to comic books, video games, movies and television, it just might be a gateway drug to reading. Even if you're not interested in it for yourself, you might want to pick up a copy for him.