Tuesday, October 30, 2012

#12 - "Space Assassin", by Andrew Chapman (1985)


Back in spaaaaaace! "Space Assassin" tells you everything you need to know right there in the title, which is a quality I very much admire about this book and the Fighting Fantasy series taken as a whole. It's even better when the cover literally depicts what the title describes as well. Scorpion Swamp, for instance, was a disappointment in that the cover failed to show one or more scorpions in a swamp, regardless of the fact the book was simply teeming with scorpions. These aren't books for adults - not real, grown-up ones - and ambiguity is intolerable. You cannot name a Fighting Fantasy book something like "Glimpses of the Nearest Tide: A Novel" and have the cover be e.g. a fountain pen lying next to a rose, or a silhouette of a guy experiencing loneliness, or a double-exposure of some tree branches and a fox's face, or whatever the fuck else they put on the front of dumbass proper literature that people respect, no! That will not play. This is not literature - the cover and the title need to tell you a lot, almost everything, so much that you can just about  throw the book away at once. And it needs to pop.


(I challenge serious literature to try this approach, by the way - e.g. I want to see an edition of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian retitled as "Bad Cowboys", with depicted on the cover, some bad cowboys throwing donkeys off the side of a mountain. And sorry if that was a spoiler for anyone who hasn't read it.)

Now this is a pretty cool cover and no-one will disagree that it definitely pops but I think it is only showing a couple of Space Mallcops instead of a Space Assassin so I guess that's a 1 out of 2, which is just 50%. My favourite thing about this picture though is that the mallcops have a game of some kind of space football up on the big screens, having worked in similar environments in the past I can tell you this is exactly what really happens. They are supposed to be watching out for intruders at the T-junction but they have the footie on instead. If you examine the image closely you can see that the football is all spikey which probably means this future is pretty dystopian, maaaaan.

This book was written by an Australian, Andrew Chapman, interestingly he wrote the first draft after reading Warlock and after a few years in publication limbo it was picked up for the Fighting Fantasy series, though that was not his original intention. The book was born from the fertile desperation that only working a soul-crushing public service job can bring - he relates it all over at his blog.

Background

So yeah, Andrew wrote the earlier drafts of this book after reading his little brother's copy of Warlock, before any other books in the series had been published. Interestingly, he hit upon a similar premise and structure as the second book in the series, Citadel of Chaos, still yet to published. Presumably this is a natural place for your mind to go as you sit on a treasure chest, wiping snotty tears from your chin - why couldn't this just be about killing the Warlock? So this is basically another case of get in the castle, murder the wizard, only it's in spaaaaaaaaace, and therefore rather than a buff sorcerer your target for space assassination is "Cyrus, the tyrannical ruling scientist of Od (your local sector)".

I just whipped him up a business card right quick at like bidnizcardz.com or wherever.

He has been causing bad trouble all up in your planet by various methods that lean pretty heavily on robots and "evil creatures almost certainly of mutant origin", henceforth referred to only as "mutants".  Kidnapping citizens for experimental surgery is, we are told, his "most usual crime".

This is just a thing that most everyone has resigned themselves to, but then word reaches the unspecified bigwigs of your nameless planet that his next crime will be at the less usual end of the spectrum: "he intends to use your entire world for one gruesome biological experiment in which he will cover the surface of the planet in radioactive isotopes while showering deadly viruses on all living creatures".

Let me say that as an experimental method this is unforgivably imprecise - I don't know what conclusions Dr. Cyrus believes he will be able to draw from this. Anyway the folks in charge decide that the best way to head this off is to have Cyrus assassinated, which is where YOU come in, in your capacity as a Space Assassin. 

So! While we don't know much about your home planet we can conclude it's the sort of backwater where this type of experiment can go ahead without anyone beyond the resident yokels being overmuch concerned - this is reinforced by the fact that the "planetary Assassin's Guild" is a rinky-dink outfit that provides the sole hope for the planet's survival with 1d6 credits and tells him to make sure he stays in budget and, for fuck's sake, hang on to the goddamn receipts.

Rolling Up My Dude


SKILL - 10
STAMINA - 20
LUCK - 7

Okay rolls. Because we're in a high-tech yet dystopian future there are some more attributes to determine (and you get "pep pills" to restore your STAMINA instead of my beloved PROVISIONS).

ARMOUR comes into play during firefights, if you get hit you roll two dice vs. ARMOUR and if you roll lower than your armour, the damage is prevented. ARMOUR is like LUCK in that it decreases by one point any time you Test it.

ARMOUR - 8

A lowish roll, but hey, you only need armour if you gonna get hit right? I resolved not to get hit. Next up I needed to determine my equipment. You get 1d6 space credits to invest in weapons and other equipment. You can buy extra points of armour and neato gravity bombs and assault blasters and whatnot.

BUDGET - 1

...however if you roll a snake's wink like Yours Truly all you can afford is the electric lash, described as - "a small hand-gun which projects an electric pulse"

Pew! Pew!
:-(

There's a few explanations I can imagine that would justify this randomly crappy budget in story terms:
1) The electric lash is the best technology available in your shitty backwater planet.
2) No-one in charge really believes the rumours about Cyrus' evil science experiment but they hired a local night-club bouncer just to appease the paranoid fringe within the electorate. "Quick mate put on this here Space Assassin armour" they hiss as you are hastily stripped of your yellowing wife-beater. The cardboard box labelled "REAL Space Assassin Armour!" is hastily kicked under a desk.
3) Planet Dumb-Dumb is more or less okay with the radioactive virus shower thing.

"Caint harm us none mo then sixty gennerations of inbreedin', right bro?"
"Thess right, bro."

Actually on reflection, none of these theories exclude each other, so I have chosen to believe all of them.

The Adventure

Okay so what you got here is not a morbidly obese ghetto blaster but in fact the mighty starship Vandervecken:

Aye, she looks a fat turd of a shippe, but she cuts through spaaaaaace like a razor!
YOU, the Space Assassin, start your quest by canvassing "the local star systems" in search of your quarry, eventually catching up with this shambling bubo of a craft in "a relatively isolated system" (does nobody ever name anywhere in this damn galaxy?) That all happens in a sentence shorter than the preceding one. You notice that the Vandervecken is taking on supplies so you stow away on the supply shuttle, and, nearing the mother ship, sneak out the back and EVA your way over to a non-descript iris airlock in the Vandervecken's hull.

You find yourself on the wrong side of an impassable security door with maintenance hatches to the right and left (T-junction alert!). Both are labelled "CAUTION". Better funded space assassins can try blowing up the door with a gravity bomb, but not I. You also have the option to sift through "a small pile of what seems to be organic refuse".

Inviting, I thought to myself, but I don't wanna go back to punching drunk space-bikies at the roadhouse - this is my big chance to make good as a Spaaaaaace Assassin. I gotta be 100% focused on the mission. Reluctantly, I turned aside from the pile of shit on the floor,  and popped open the right-hand maintenance hatch.

Clambering down the maintenance shaft you stop and listen at the hatches you pass, which is an under-utilised idea in the series - adding a bit of flavour to the direction-choosing is always a good idea. I bypassed the first side-hatch which had a creepy gurgling noise audible from the other side, but took the second one which was quiet but "rather warm". Hope this doesn't lead to some elaborate and needlessly dangerous apparatus for venting waste gases, I thought. They're kind of a big deal in dystopian futures. But I needn't have feared, the hatch just lead to moderately warm room, from where I could spy upon some space aliens - two Fossniks, disarmingly described as follows:

Seated, reading from electronic resource sheets, are two rodent-like Fossniks, their white lab coats and tiny pince-nez betray them as being technical types.

Here's what they look like after you kill them.
The book also calls them "hench-beings" which is an adorable noun. You don't have to murder them though, you have the option also of buggering off or "threatening" them which is what I decided to do. I jumped out and waved my teensy electric lash around, they were like "what is that, keep your hand still" and then they were like "woah hang on it's a electric lash!" and then they dropped to their knees and begged for mercy.

"Where's Cyrus!" I barked.
"I dunno, man, sorry man!" pleaded one Fossnik, "we only work in this one lab, he could be anywhere on the ship though."
"Yeah have you seen the size of this fukken place," said the second, "there's one room wit' a whole dang old forest in it and there's a lost tribe in it and giant scorpions flyin' around in it."
"Oh yeah and they got that canyon with the lake with all the Loch Ness monsters and whatnot," Fossnik #1 chimed in enthusiastically.
"What?! What?!" I bellowed, forgetting the need for stealth in my confusion.
"It's a science experiment!", they said, nodding gleefully. "Dr. Cyrus has a very inquisitive mind".
"He basically never comes to see us though," said the first, remorsefully, "I've been waiting three months to report that we completed our assigned tasks and scientifically determined that when you stab a dog in the liver, it dies."
"Well, usually," said the second. "It's statistically significant anyway."
"Shut up!" I howled, hoping very much that I sounded like someone who needs to be taken seriously.

Then I forced them to strip and tied them up. HOLD ON A MINUTE WHAT DID I JUST DO. No, there it is in the book - "You force them to strip and tie them up." - the option said I could threaten the funny rat-men, now I got them stripping at (admittedly tiny) gunpoint? I am uncomfortable with treating the rat-men in this degrading way, it is not what I had in mind at all! Yet here my Space Assassin is, wishing there were more Fossnicks to "threaten" so he could stack them in a Abu Ghraib style pyramid of hench-beings.

This moment serves to illustrate a basic issue of agency in Fighting Fantasy, YOU are not in fact the hero, YOU are just one tiny Eddie Murphy inside the hero's giant Eddie Murphy head, tipping his impulses one way or t'other at certain opportune moments, but otherwise just along for the ride, one tiny Eddie Murphy among so many others. It is a matter than I have given some philosophical consideration.

 
This giant Eddie Murphy head car is being driven by Eddie Murphy, whose own head is in turn full of tiny Eddie Murphies each representing one of his foibles, quirks and desires.
And that's how you end up with two nude, terrified rat-men quivering on the floor before you.

Anyway. "While they are stripping", you notice that they each have an electronic key-card around their neck so you pilfer one of those and swipe yourself through to the next corridor, leaving the disgraced and violated Fossnicks to recover from their trauma as best they may. I elected to duck into a cafeteria along the way - "once again everything is decorated in an alien style designed to make human behaviour difficult" - how lamentably chauvinist! I'm sure the decor is in fact designed to make alien behaviour extremely comfortable and easy - update your perspective, buddy, you are like a cat complaining that the car windscreen doesn't have a cat-flap. Anyway the protagonist follows up this unreconstructed blunder by mouthing off to himself about the stinky foreign muck that those aliens eat before happily stumbling upon some muesli bars. And of course they have those miraculous healing powers beloved of ill-fated heroes everywhere, result! Next time someone burns a hole through my torso with a high-powered laser I shall remember to gnaw on them bad boys.

Exiting the break room, I continued down the corridor.


Failure, and Death

So, the method by which I died.... is pretty crazy. Let me tell you about it.

At the end of the corridor is a T-junction and standing there is a GUARD ROBOT "with a pair of electric lashes protruding from its chest" like murderous little zappy nipples. You have an option to "bluff the robot".

"What's up," said the ROBOT.
"Say, ah, I'm, ah, inspecting IDs," said I. "You a robot though, you don't need no ID. I'm a let you just cool out for now. Okay seeya."
"Hold up my mans," that crafty ROBOT interrupted, "let me get at the base, they might coulda forgot and tell me about clearance for inbred-looking-ass hayseed mah'fukking denim-overalls-havin' ID inspectors creepin' up on my T-junction with they dick-fronts poking out they flyyyyyyyyyyyy... oversight like stands to be noted, you would agree."
"Well sure if you wanna waste they time you go right on aheed," I said sounding super pissy and not really nervous, (cos' I was pretty much nailing this bluff).
A long pause, punctuated only by the screech of a 14.4k modem negotiating a connection.
"This ID thing is a problem though," I volunteered, "lotta the aliens gettin' sloppy with they IDs, got 'em all dog-eared and what-not. Even some of the proper folks, too. Dirty thumbprints on the face part of the ID and that. Photo peeling up at the corner and what have you. HQ is havin' a fit, man, they pissed. Sent me down to bust some heads, tell y'all to get right with your IDs, straighten out them shits, yew know."
Another pause.

"Acknowledged".
The ROBOT opened fire and zapped one point of my armour off.

There's no illustration of the crappy shooty-nippled robot that I fought, so here's a sick drawing of a way cooler robot from some much cooler part of the starship. 
It is a kind of a main theme of this book actually, that ROBOTS are not easily bluffed. It's something Andrew Chapman wants his readers to "take home" from the experience, as they say. Reader beware! You cannot take these ROBOTS for the okey-doke. So this shrewd little guy got the drop on me and for what felt like hours we traded needle-thin rays of lukewarm electrical energy until, suffering an ultimate reverse in its moment of triumph, the GUARD ROBOT collapsed in a pachinko-like clatter.

So whut wuz thet somnbitch guardin' anyhoo, my character thought. Set into the floor beneath its smouldering wreck was a safe with a three button combination lock - red button, blue button, green button. Now, I know a little bit about security because I used to live in a building where any attentive intruder could figure out the door code because microbes from a hundred greasy fingertips had grown into ring-shaped colonies around the only numbers on the keypad that ever got pressed. So I know that a safe with a three button lock is pretty fukken easy to crack. I felt pretty suspicious about this safe, and I kind of wanted to leave it alone - the protagonist however, is enraptured the moment he notices the shiny buttons, and he simple must press them, even as I, tiny Eddie Murphy (i.e. the reader), pound my fists ineffectually against the inside curve of his cranium. If you know about the safe there is no option but to meddle with it.

Red button.
Beep!
Oh, that was okay! Alright how about the blue butto--

337
As you depress the button, your world falls apart in a soundless explosion - you never see what the safe had hidden. You have failed. 


If an idiot dies in an explosion, and his ears are the first things that blow up, did it really make a sound?
Apparently not.

Notable Encounters

Actually no, pardon me but I'm going to talk a bit more about how I died though.

Alright, so:

  • There is a safe set in the floor operated by three buttons.
  • Pressing them in the wrong order blows up the safe.
  • The safe actually only contains the bomb that blows it up (confirmed by cheating - if you guess the combo you can waltz off with the bomb and use it to blow up a door or a baddy or something)
  • The safe is set into the floor in the middle of a goddamn corridor where any little rat-scientist or whatever can step on the buttons while rushing towards the superbly ergonomic dining area.
  • This is in a spaceship that's in space, by the way. 
So I think the GUARD ROBOT was mainly there to prevent people from stepping on the trap buttons on the floor and blowing themselves up and potentially breaching the ship's hull? WHAT KIND OF FUKKEN SPACESHIP ARE YOU RUNNING, CYRUS-THE-SCIENTUSS.

Okay, then:

Notable Encounters

I didn't get very far but there is a great jumble of fun stuff in this book. The massive on-ship wilderness zone I referred to in the dialogue with the Fossnicks is really in the book and all of the stuff mentioned in said dialogue is also really in the book:

From left to right - towering cliffs (note also the lake full of Nessies), tribe of lozenge-shaped Stone Age aliens, flying scorpion soaring over plains that stretch to the horizon - all aboard ship. NOT. EVEN. JOKING. 
Maybe it's a holodeck or something, I dunno, I didn't get that far. This barely scratches the surface of weirdo encounters on the Vandervecken though. The author seems to have had a fun time dreaming them up, and there's a distinct tongue-in-cheek absurdity to many encounters that is so patently deliberate and knowing that it rather cocks up the usual blend of genuine fondness and mean-spirited literalism in which I normally discuss these things - because Andrew Chapman is very much in on the joke

Another of Dr. Cyrus' experiments (possibly the control condition for the planetary radiation/virus bombardment)
My favourite moment of deliberate humour in Space Assassin - that I've noticed while skimming at least - comes during another attempt to bluff another GUARD ROBOT. You have the option of talking, attacking, or trying to sneak past - talking nets the following:

192
'I say...' you say, to attract its attention. Before you can finish however, the robot spins, aims and fires - the blast smashes into the tunnel behind you and showers the area with molten metal. You will have to fight it. Turn to 228

Having our Space Assassin launch his bad idea for a conversation with the stereotypically upper crust "I say!" is a stroke of comedic genius, it cracked me up.


The SKELETON Count

And reprising his award-winning role from Starship Traveller, here we have the "No Skeletons, Dummy, It's Sci-Fi" SKELETON:


I don't think there will ever be any SKELETONS in any of the science-fiction books. Maybe for the sci-fi books I should try counting laser swords instead or something instead, I dunno. Jury's out on that one.

Final Thoughts

I think I like this book, from as much as I've read of it at least. Andrew Chapman brings a comedic and slightly lunatic tone to the book that is amusing without throwing things outside the narrative world, if that makes sense.

The prose is pretty good and quite evocative...  except when suddenly it isn't, occasionally lapsing into inexcusable briskness. I'm gonna go ahead and call it for the whole series right now - Space Assassin has to the flattest, most unrewarding, paragraph 400 in all of Fighting Fantasy, perhaps even in all of numbered-paragraph literature:

You drag the unconscious Cyrus from the Waldo. Your mission is a complete success. Congratulations.


Andrew Chapman has gone on the record as apologising "now and forever" for this ending, which I feel is completely appropriate and should probably also be followed up with a small compensatory payment to all readers. It's odd to consider that it was also he who penned my favourite paragraph 400, which is at the end of book 16, Seas of Blood - but we'll get to that in about eight months.

I actually reeled backwards in my chair  when I opened this page as the memories of a cascade of recurring childhood nightmares starring this loathsome hench-being flooded back to me. 

15 comments:

  1. Great post as always. Keep doing these reviews, they are really fun to read and bring back great memories about Fighting Fantasy.

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  2. "I felt pretty suspicious about this safe, and I kind of wanted to leave it alone - the protagonist however, is enraptured the moment he notices the shiny buttons, and he simple must press them, even as I, tiny Eddie Murphy (i.e. the reader), pound my fists ineffectually against the inside curve of his cranium. If you know about the safe there is no option but to meddle with it."

    Exactly what happened to my character.

    http://drbargle.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/hawkanaaaaaaaagh.html

    As I said, it's not even a bad GM's game of "what am I thinking?"

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  3. Ah, I remember this book - a very strange one in the series. My favourite part was convincing one of the experimental squirrels to become your pet.

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  4. Seems that during both our playthroughs, we wound up falling to the same death.

    http://fightyourfantasy.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/space-assassin-playthrough.html There, see? Both blown to pieces because our character wouldn't leave the damn safe alone even when we were shouting at them to leave it alone.

    As a bit of weirdness, this is one of those books that made me think that it was essentially just a dungeon crawl, dressed up in vaguely sci-fi wording and tropes. Does it, therefore, mean that it is a sci-fi adventure simply because it's dressed as one? Maybe it does. You could dress an adventure in any kind of wording and tropes, and change its genre. Unless you're forcing scientists to strip, in which case it's just weird.

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  5. Great stuff as always. A shame you didn't get to explore more of the ship, but the enduring memory I have of this book (last played maybe 8 years ago) is that it's full of random, inventive and completely unfair ways to get yourself obliterated. Having said that, I'm quite looking forward to blogging on this one eventually.

    I liked the tiny Eddie Murphy analogy - a very good description of the way FF railroads you sometimes, either to keep the story on track or pure self-indulgence on the part of the author.

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  6. I've always found that when you explain a concept in terms of Eddie Murphy, it just clicks.

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  7. Great to see another entry at last.

    The first time I came across the button trap, I went for the order in which the colours occur in the rainbow. Which is the right one. Judging by the complaints I've read, I appear to be the only person on the entire planet to have taken that approach.

    I'd say that book 23, Masks of Mayhem, is another strong contender for 'flattest, most unrewarding, paragraph 400 in all of Fighting Fantasy'.

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  8. For me, that Eddie Murphy factor is one of the great charms of the Fighting Fantasy books. The fact that you can't choose to do whatever you want(or even, sometimes, what 99% of sober people would do) means that you always feel as if you are just guiding the hero around by prodding him in the right direction or smacking his hand whenever he thinks of doing something especially stupid (eg. "Ooh, shall I drink that?"). There's something strangely satisfying about that level of control.

    Another magnificent post, by the way. I laughed like a CRAZED HYENA.

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  9. Loved the Cormac McCarthy reference, but i'm not sure it's intentional or not, but the pushing donkeys part is actually more or less another reference to one of his novels, "Outer Dark"

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  10. I haven't read "Outer Dark" but there's definitely donkeys getting pushed off a cliff in "Blood Meridian". Maybe it's a motif? Something he keeps coming back to.

    The man can be pretty inscrutable, after all.

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  11. Well, strange thing that i don't remember that particular part, as Blood Meridien is one of my favorite books. In Outer Dark it's about pigs falling off a cliff.

    This discussion just makes want even more to read the rest of his works.

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  12. Sorry that was intended as an unequivocal note of support, but it read just like superfluous hip hop jargon. Personally can't wait for Sword of the Samurai, one of my personal favs.

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  13. Free! Way! Free! Way! Free! Way! Freeway?

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    Replies
    1. I've been struggling to work on it - SPOILER - that book kinda sucks.
      But I have some good material now, that literary glacier is still careening down the mountain towards you, Dear Readers...

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