Tag Archives: Bruce Bethke

Rebel Moon, Bruce Bethke and Vox Day

Pocket, 1996, 282 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-00236-8

It’s true that you always approach a book with the accumulated mass of your life experiences up to that point. But even by those standards, I approached Bruce Bethke and Vox Day’s Rebel Moon with a truckload of preconceptions both good and bad.

On the positive side, you can put my admiration for Bruce Bethke: His debut novel Headcrash was not just a fairly funny novel, but the last biting nail in cyberpunk’s coffin. Given that Bethke himself coined the word “cyberpunk”, he should have had the last word on the subject –and he did. That he co-wrote a second novel was cause enough for celebration and anticipation.

That the novel itself would be a near-future “war of the worlds” Earth-versus-Moon revolution novel Could have gone both ways. On one hand, Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a bona-fide SF classic. Furthermore, this particular theme is also one of the truly inevitable stories that SF has to tell: Sooner or later, off-Earth colonies will gain their independence from Earth, and how we deal with that juncture in time will mark one of the most vital chapters in human history. Sadly, for some reason, the scenario has proved particularly addicting to libertarian writers, leading to a steady stream of such stories re-fighting the American Revolution over and over again, usually with rugged über-American colonists predictably rebelling against a corrupt, communist and overbearing Earthican government. Yawn.

And finally, on the gripping hand, there’s Vox Day, best known as Theodore Beale, a veciforous blogger, a right-wing columnist and an author of -they say- fine fundamentalist SF. (I don’t need to tell you how I feel about fundamentalists and right-wing pundits)

But wait! There more! You see, Rebel Moon is the first volume in a trilogy meant to novelize a series of video games… of first-person shooter video games.

Maybe I should have stopped there, shrugged and forgot about the book.

But oh no. I had to see for myself. Memories of the Doom novelizations weren’t enough to stop me.

I’ll be mercifully blunt and to the point: Just avoid this novel, m’kay? It brings nothing new to the “Libertarian Moon versus Evil Earth” sub-genre. It bashes the UN like that was an endangered sport. It can’t be bothered to include more than one mildly interesting character. It reads like military SF pablum, filled with gunfights and explosions than mean nothing and make no difference. It ends on a note promising a trilogy that remains unfinished to this day, but don’t worry: you won’t be asking for it.

If you put the novel in a cyclotron and spin it at ludicrous speeds to extract the good from the bad, you may end up with a few concepts and passages worth saving. And, to its credit, it doesn’t take long to announce its colours: Barely a few pages it, interest isn’t piqued, the novel has no sense of place, the usual “Terra-UN sucks! Luna-USA rawks!” rhetoric starts to play and it’s obvious that it won’t get any better.

I remained unconvinced by aspects of the set-up: The moon is portrayed as a major food source for Earth, an idea so nonsensical that it’s difficult to even begin explaining why it’s dumb. (But start with shipping costs, delivery delays and the relative density of food: pharmaceuticals may be fit for essential lunar production, but simple sustenance food? Er, no.)

It’s also unclear if the authors know how to manipulate the tools of the trade: a lack of communication delays between Earth and Moon is mentioned early on (as a hint of You-know-what), but curiously unexplored until late in the novel, demonstrating characters almost too dumb to live. (You-know-what also screws up a lot of the hard-science pretencions of the story, but hey –they were only pretencions.)

I wasn’t impressed by the Rebel Moon video-game demo floating around the web, and let me tell you that the novel doesn’t fare any better. The only thing making it even slightly memorable are its problems. It’s probably fitting that the game and its publishing company have sunk in oblivion. It sucks that Bruce Bethke disappeared from SF after this novel. It figures that Theodore Beale, under whatever name he chooses, would find a more receptive audience in right-wing groups. It’s sad that copies of this novel will continue to haunt readers for the next few decades.

Headcrash, Bruce Bethke

Warner Aspect, 1995, 344 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60260-4

When future histories of SF will be written, some pundit will probably observe that cyberpunk died in the early nineties and that Headcrash was one of the pallbearers. When the satiric carrion-eaters start hovering in droves around a genre, you know it’s a pretty stinky corpse.

But really; a genre founded on a bleak future dominated by corporations in this era of consumer-power? A genre glorifying street-smarts, as written by patsy-faced SF geeks? A genre wetting itself upon fancy cyber-virtuality when today’s networld is clogged to a grind by porn addicts? A genre where brain damage was the way to punch out, and no one ever though about a fuse-protector? What the hell were these cyberpunk writers smoking in their spare time? Who can blame Bruce Bethke for taking on such an obvious target?

Headcrash is, simply, a satire on cyberpunk. Jack Burroughs is a nerdish compu-minion in a multi-megacorporation. By day, he slaves away at a dead-end job and fights office politics. By night, he’s MAX_KOOL and do pretty much whatever he wants in cyberspace. Unfortunately, the afore-mentioned office politics bite back and he finds himself “transitioned to Unpaid Administrative Leave” [P.117]. After being mugged by security guards in the parking lot (the bastards even cut off his tie!), Burroughs is offered a risky hacking job by a curvaceous cyber-babe…

By any rational standard, Headcrash is pretty darn funny. “Here comes Bruce Bethke. And he’s got a chainsaw” blurbs Joel Rosenberg on the back cover. He’s not kidding. Bethke savagely rips apart cyberpunk from The Shockwave Rider to Snow Crash, with a hundred-page detour on the inanity of corporate life that reads a lot like Dilbert on acid. Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton also get their dues…

The first-person narration is wonderfully funny and compulsively readable. Be careful about reading this one on the bus, unless you don’t mind everyone looking at you when you laugh aloud. Like most geek-fantasy tales, this one promises plenty of techno-gadgets and sex, though it eventually reneges on the latter. Disappointingly, many of the “surprises” are telegraphed miles in advance, with predictable results.

(Warning; mild spoilers in this paragraph) Headcrash finely upholds the cyberpunk tradition of unsatisfying endings, by pulling a huge disappointment out of its bags of tricks. (One Amazon reader called it “a GPF of an ending”) The long-awaited relationship between two characters isn’t consumed and even if the effect seems conscious, it isn’t less damning. One get the feeling that even if the protagonist ends up pretty satisfied with himself, he should -and could- have had better. (Like, er, traveling with someone else.) I will note with some interest that another recent corporate satire -Mike Judge’s film OFFICE SPACE- ends on more or less the same philosophical point.

Still, one would have to be really ungrateful not to like Headcrash —though it is entirely possible not to get it given the strongly satiric bent of the work. The dour cyberpunk genre really needed such a strongly-worded eulogy… and as far as send-offs go, this one is really quite decent. As if Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, Douglas Adams, William Gibson and Scott Adams decided to celebrate the death of the genre by poking fun at each other, with Hunter S. Thompson crashing the party mid-way through.