Baen, 2003, 378 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7434-7161-X
Nowadays, everyone struggles under the shadow of Buffy.
Hey, it’s what happens when a sub-genre gets strip-mined. Vampire hunters (or, more generally speaking, monster-slayers) have been with us for a long time in popular lore: As you imagine horrors, the next step is someone who will protect you from it. But as the nineties evolved, as Buffy and The X-Files took over the fantastic sub-genres for easily digestible weekly stories, it became simultaneously trivial and impossible to re-imagine the genre. Suddenly, you couldn’t walk into a bookstore’s horror section without being clobbered by dozens of sexy vampire hunters who may themselves be vampires, alongside other furry tentacled critters who may or may not be prime relationship material.
Half a decade later, the situation isn’t much different. Anyone tackling the contemporary monster-slayer sub-genre has to contend with the dozens, maybe hundreds of other writers who each had their own unique take on the idea. And so it goes with Digital Knight, a contemporary monster-slaying book with its own particular strengths that still feels as if it’s playing with well-worn material.
I may not respect that sub-genre too much, but I didn’t pick up the book by accident: Ryk E. Spoor, under a different alias, has been a long-time contributor to the Usenet literary SF community, and I was curious to see if his incisive commentary on genre fiction would carry over to original fiction. Would he manage to escape the shadow of Buffy, or not?
“Maybe” ends up being the most charitable assessment I can give.
First, the good and favourable impressions: Spoor can write the type of accessible prose that has come to exemplify the Baen line. His hip and sarcastic tone carries well to his chosen protagonist, an information specialist with a number of similarities to those most likely to read the book. If nothing else, Digital Knight is a lot more information-aware than most of its brethren, and that give it a nice little edge, a truly contemporary flavour that seems to be missing from a lot of vampire-hunting stories seemingly stuck in a Stoker mindset. Better yet: Protagonist Jason Wood is a geek, and I can identify with that.
What’s more, Spoor’s approach to his stable of critters is a lot more science-fictional than fantastic: Among the biggest strengths of the book is the acknowledgement that actions have consequences. One of the early stories sees Wood develop a werewolf sensor: later on, the devices are selling briskly as the world realizes that there are such creatures out there. As far as monster-slaying stories go, this is pretty much the way things should be.
But this is a first novel, and an episodic one at that: More fix-up than sustained narrative, Digital Knight is consciously structured around what we could call episodes, each one developing and extending the mythology of the series. It could work as a miniseries, but as book form it leaves readers with an assortment of unfinished or hastily-tied plot threads. On the writing front, the book never totally shakes a certain lack of grace in the prose, which isn’t as important as you may suppose, but does nothing to enhance the experience. Beginner’s stuff, probably less intrusive in the next novel.
Then there’s the Buffy factor, or (broadly speaking), the idea that despite the neat touches and the contemporary gadgets, we’ve seen all of this before —ad nauseam. Jason Wood can be the best and hippest monster-slayer on the block, he’s still working in a clearly identifiable mythology mash-up where everything is readily recognizable despite the twisted allegiances and careful justifications. If you’ve had enough of “that stuff”, Digital Knight remains “that stuff”, however well it’s handled.
I suppose readers with a higher tolerance for this sub-genre will enjoy Digital Knight a lot more than I did, much like I tend to be far more generous to hard-SF books than to other types of stories. Otherwise, well, I’m happy to see Spoor working professionally and earning money for the wit he demonstrated on Usenet… and I’ll certainly consider any hard-SF book he cares to pen. But as far as monster-slaying is concerned, I’ll stay on the side-lines a while longer.
[December 2006 update: Ryk E. Spoor wrote to clarify a few details, some of which I knew but didn’t acknowledge properly in the review. With his permission, here are excerpts of his message…
[Digital Knight] *was* written as separate stories originally (the first three were “Gone in a Flash”, “Photo Finish” and “Viewed in a Harsh Light”; the other three sections were added in two months after Jim Baen expressed interest in it but said that it was too short). I felt (and Eric and Jim agreed) that given the type of story it worked reasonably well in an episodic format and thus I didn’t do a huge amount of work to somehow try to integrate it into some overarching plotline.
“Gone in a Flash” was written in … 1989 – 1990, I think, while “Lawyers, Ghouls, and Mummies”, “Live and Let Spy”, and “Mirror Image” were all written in one short stretch of 2002. (From my PoV, of course, it’s the X-Files and Buffy who are the latecomers; the two genre influences I would credit with Jason Wood’s birth would be the Nero Wolfe novels (for Jason’s tone) and Kolchak the Night Stalker (for the basic concept).
[Digital Knight] is also, as I’ve also put it to other people, a sort of “compressed intro” to my multiverse. Jason Wood intersects (sometimes unknowingly) with just about every important aspect of my multiverse in his career, and his stories get correspondingly more complex as time goes on. Even apparently quite minor events have more significance than may appear at first glance.
Mr. Spoor’s graciousness in dealing with my review was enough to make we go out and finally buy his follow-up novel Boundary, which I’d been meaning to get for a while.]
[January 2009: After spending years on my reading stack, my double-authographed copy of Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor’s Boundary proves to be classic, enjoyable, light-hearted adventure Science Fiction. It may be predictable and too long by about a hundred pages, but it’s SF that will make long-time readers smile. Good sympathetic characters, intriguing glimpses at the lives of scientists (in this case, an archaeologist whose discovery almost proves too revolutionary to be taken seriously) and straight-ahead narration make this a pretty good choice for a wide readership.]