Monday, November 15, 2010

Book Review of "Dead Forever: Awakening"

Immortality is a well-worn theme in fantasy and sci-fi.  It’s in a neck-and-neck tie with “world domination” as the most popular goal for villains in all sorts of stories, driving the ambitions of everyone from Voldemort to Emperor Palpatine.  It is also in heavy rotation currently with the numberless volumes that have been written on vampires, zombies, and other monstrous denizens traditionally associated with everlasting life.  In these examples immortality is ultimately given a negative connotation, with nearly every story becoming a warning about the dangers and pitfalls of living long past your allotted time.  
William Campbell’s Dead Forever novel series takes a different approach.  Campbell seeks to utilize the concept of everlasting physical life—and the knowledge associated with it—as a way to deepen the intrigue and raise the stakes in a battle between individual freedoms and hegemonic domination.  The first novel in the series, Awakening, mostly succeeds in this goal, but is hampered by a somewhat sluggish plot arc and character dialogue that could have used some refinement.

As the story opens, the chief protagonist “Carl” has just awoken once again to the dreary existence he has known from his first memories, which aren’t all that long ago due to an apparent accident which has left him with amnesia.  He lives as a homeless drifter, sustaining himself with cheap diner eggs and odd day labor in a rainy, gray cityscape seemingly devoid of cheer.  One day a slip of the tongue brings him to the attention of The Association, the fascist political entity that controls the planet and values conformity over all else.  He is apprehended, examined by the ruling council, and sentenced to die.  However, things are not as simple and dreary as Carl has been led to believe, and he is rescued by a team of rebels, including a beautiful woman who seems to behave entirely too familiarly around him. 
As they escaped the hostile planet, it is revealed to Carl that his name is in fact Adam, and these renegades have been friends with him his whole life—in fact, many lifetimes.  In the universe inhabited by these characters (which at this point still has ambiguous provenance), death of the physical body is simply an occasional hurdle to overcome, no different than retiring a comfortable old car for a new model.  Reincarnation is treated as an ordinary part of life, and everyone maintains a supply of replacement bodies, produced by bio-engineers on large “body farms” (one of the most revealing and compelling scenes in the novel takes place at one of these production facilities, more Garden of Eden than assembly line).  Adam’s friends—the too-fresh Madison, pilot Dave, and tech expert Matt—have been looking for him for months, since The Association captured him and suppressed his memories, including those of previous rebirths.  They are key members of the rebellion fighting to break The Association’s stranglehold on the lives of everyone it has conquered.  There was also once a fifth member of the team, who meant a great deal to Adam.  However, no one is very forthcoming with information, citing the need for Adam to retrieve the memories on his own.
And therein lies some of the problems I had with the novel.  The reveal of this mystery person is a key point in the novel’s plot, and the reader isn’t let in on the secret until well beyond halfway into the book.  After the first 15% or so, the action grinds almost completely to a halt as Adam returns home with the team to their home on a rebel-occupied planet.  The characters tend to sort of hang around and do…not much, while dribbling out exposition about the local concept of reincarnation and the ongoing war between The Association and the rebels.  This state of affairs also requires a large amount of dialogue between the characters, and this is a second weakness.  The level of discourse between most of the chief characters—particularly between Dave and Matt—occasionally borders on the sophomoric.  It’s distracting, and at times it undermines what really is a very serious and epic story.  The third act redeems much of this with large steps in plot advancement, and setup for the rest of the series, and to be fair, dialogue improves quite a bit when the characters have something to actively talk about.
Most of the issues I had with the book can really be written off as part of the burden carried by the opening work in a planned trilogy.  The book is saddled with a lot of origin story, not just for the characters but for the world in which—and the rules by which—they live.  This makes necessary plotting and pacing a tough thing to pull off.  From a technical standpoint, there is a stereotype (not entirely undeserved) of indie authors as being somewhat slapdash with their craft as it pertains to things like editing and typo-management.  Dead Forever: Awakening suffers from none of these problems, having roughly the same rate of mild typos as any traditionally published book—that is, few enough that someone as hung up on that sort of thing as me doesn’t even notice them. 
Any reader of sci-fi will enjoy William Campbell’s work, especially given the novel approach taken to reincarnation and immortality.  Just be patient in the middle.
Grade: 3/5 stars

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Jon. That is an excellent review, my favorite kind, thoughtful and balanced, which adds credibility to the work.

    You are quite right about the "burden carried by the opening work in a planned trilogy." In fact, back in 2001 when I penned the first draft, it was a single book, but at 300k+ words that would have made one big book (900 or so pages unless set in a microscopic typeface). So in one sense, this episode could be considered the first act, modified to break into its own book, as best as could be accomplished while remaining true to the full tale. There is much being established, that of course at this point, the reader could not guess. As it happens in the early portion of any story, but most connect by the end of a single volume. With so much to say, I've put myself at that disadvantage, and knew the risk going into this.

    At any rate, I am pleased the initial episode holds its own well enough. I do believe you will find the second installment intriguing, tackling topics more dark and serious. By the third and final episode (on its way to the editor next week), I am confident you and other readers will find, as you put it, "what really is a very serious and epic story."

    Also, thank you for the kind words about the editing. I have slaved over "keeping the fictive dream" by killing all distractions in the way of typos and usage errors, to the best of my ability (and my editor's). It is always rewarding when someone notices (or rather doesn't, which means we did well).

    All in all, an excellent review, and I would recommend that others seek Jon's review of their work, for those brave enough to face a thoughtful, honest opinion. I for one appreciate the honestly greatly. Keep up the good work, Jon, and I will certainly be referring others to your blog for mine and other reviews.