Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri: Centauri Dawn by Michael Ely
Pocket Books, 2000
Price I paid: $14 + S&H
After a forty-year journey from an Earth left teetering on the brink of nuclear Armageddon, the United Nations colonial starship Unity reaches the lone habitable planet orbiting Alpha Centauri’s primary star, bringing with it the hope of a new beginning for the human race.
Hope turns to ashes when, on final approach to the new world, a mysterious malfunction damages the ship, triggering a crisis that results in the death of the captain and a rash of infighting over the ship’s undamaged colony pods. The Unity breaks apart in space and seven colonial factions are scattered across the surface of the planet.
As the Unity survivors struggle to rebuild human civilization on this strange and mysterious alien world, old tensions resurface and one man sets in motion forces that may destroy any dream of a lasting peace.
Well, folks, this might be the absolute pinnacle of niche-interest blog reviews. And given my history, that’s saying a lot! I wouldn’t be surprised if a fair number of people duck out of this one, but just so you don’t go away empty handed, I’ll also say that I recently read Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future and I really liked it, so maybe give it a look?
What we’ve got here is a novel based on a video game. Not just any video game, but one of my all-time favorite video games, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. Folks, you have no idea how many hours I dropped on this game as the millenium rolled over—unless you yourself were also a fan, in which case you probably did much the same as I did. It’s still an absolute classic, for many reasons.
Still, it’s a pretty wild sort of game to have a trilogy of novels based on it. Alpha Centauri isn’t really a narrative-based game. It’s a strategy game, specifically a turn-based strategy game in the vein of the Civilization series, with which it shares creators Sid Meier and Brian Reynolds. As such, it doesn’t really have any kind of a set story. The story is what the player shapes it to be, through skill and through decision-making. The player chooses one of seven factions and leads them on one of several paths to victory, such as conquering the other factions or achieving transcendence through technological means. That means that making a novel out of the game is really just telling one of the many stories that might develop when playing it.
But unlike Civilization, which takes place in the “real world,” Alpha Centauri does have a lot of sci-fi worldbuilding in it, and that’s a lot of what gives the game its charm. Each of the faction leaders is a unique and interesting personality, and their stories are told indirectly, in the form of quotes and snippets of their fictional writings when the player meets certain goals. For example, we learn from faction leader and hyper-capitalist Nwabudike Morgan when we learn to create Synthetic Fossil Fuels:
Fossil fuels in the last century reached their extreme prices because of their inherent utility: they pack a great deal of potential energy into an extremely efficient package. If we can but sidestep the 100 million year production process, we can corner this market once again.
Or from the leader of the University of Planet, Prokhor Zakharov, when building our first “Skunkworks” facility:
The popular stereotype of the researcher is that of a skeptic and a pessimist. Nothing could be further from the truth! Scientists must be optimists at heart, in order to block out the incessant chorus of those who say “It cannot be done.”
I could go on and on and on. The game is jam-packed with stuff like this which, when taken as a whole, gives it a certain heart and soul that works very well, something that I was really wondering if it would translate into the novel.
I say all this under the assumption that you’ve never played the game yourself and are still reading. You know, it’s a difficult decision for me on this review: What should I assume? Should I just plow into this thing assuming you know what I’m talking about because you’d have moved on already if you didn’t? I just don’t know. Anyway, I’ll stop talking about the game itself now and we’ll move on to the first novel based on it.
The 292-page paperback spends its first half setting up the situation. We’re introduced to key players Pravin Lal and Corazon Santiago, of the Peacekeeper and Spartan factions, specifically. The other five factions from the game do make appearances, but as background players mostly. Our points-of-view for this book focus almost entirely on these two factions.
(The seven factions from the expansion pack, Alien Crossfire, are not mentioned.)
Both Lal and Santiago are characters straight out of the game, but the book introduces a good few other, original, characters. Most notable are the children of these faction leaders, Jahn Lal and Victor Santiago. We see a great deal of the story unfold from their points-of-view, as well.
We start the book the same way we did the game. As the United Nations starship Unity approaches Alpha Centauri after fleeing from a war-shattered Earth, it undergoes a systems failure followed by a mutiny. As the ship breaks apart, the various factions take to “colony pods” which land on the planet, dubbed Chiron, and allow them to stake out a living in their various factional ways. Pravin Lal, formerly the ship’s doctor and a diplomat, wishes to maintain peace at any cost and to provide humanity with a new start, leaving behind the old petty rivalries and warmongering that destroyed Earth. Corazon Santiago, the ship’s security officer, on the other hand, believes that survival hinges on strength and willpower, and so sets up her colony as a training facility and weapons development hub.
The book tries to make it so that neither of the factions are the bad guy here. Santiago, for all her belligerence, does have a bit of a point. This planet is hostile to humanity. Its atmosphere is barely-breathable and it boasts fields of red tangles of “xenofungus,” which snarl any attempt to progress through them. Related to the xenofungus are the horrific “mindworms,” which boil en masse from the xenofungus and attack humans first with psychically-induced terror, and then by more conventional means.
So for the first 150 pages or so, we see these two factions set themselves up and develop into very different communities. Other factions make appearances, such as the industries led by businessman Nwabudike Morgan, or the ecologically-minded Gaia’s Stepdaughters, led by Deirdre Skye. These two are mainly there for Lal and Santiago to politic with over food and mineral shipments. Other factions, like the hyper-scientific University of Planet, the Christian fundamentalist Lord’s Believers, and the materialist Communist Human Hive, are mentioned. I get the impression that they will get more page time in the future books.
So things progress for a while and tensions grow between Lal and Santiago until, right around the midpoint of the book, war is declared between the two factions.
Previously, each chapter of the book had years between it and the previous one while society develops. The second half of the book takes place over a few days, and concerns the siege of the Peacekeepers’ main city, United Nations Headquarters, by the Spartans. And it’s brutal.
Our author, Michael Ely, doesn’t really pull punches! War is hell and lots of people die. In fact, it might warrant a content warning because a fair number of children die in this book. It’s not pretty and I was really surprised by the tone this book took in several places. It’s that late-nineties just-before-9/11 kind of grimdark that probably didn’t age all that well.
Even though it takes up the entirety of the second half of the book, there’s not all that much to say about the battle. It’s not to say that nothing happens, it’s just that a lot of it carries the same weight, and it’s mostly just “the Spartans take this position but then the Peacekeepers take it back, but then there are lasers, but then some of the lasers get destroyed” and so on. It’s a lot of back and forth kind of stuff.
Personally, I found this second half weaker than the first half. Long battle scenes just aren’t my thing, and eventually I was just emotionally exhausted by the constant interminable pushes and retreats and victories and losses.
Oh man, that really echoes the last week of politics in the US, though!
At about the 80% mark, though, the book took an interesting turn. Lal and Santiago sit down together (virtually) and hammer out a ceasefire. It appears that the day is saved and everyone can go home!
But, uh oh, it’s not to be. A Peacekeeper force, running on radio silence, doesn’t get the memo. They attack the Spartans as they’re packing up to go home, something that would be a massacre if the Spartans weren’t such highly-tuned weapons of war. All this means is that they fight back even harder, and things go even worse for the Peacekeeper forces.
It was a pretty good twist! But it also meant that there was more battle to read about.
Things go very badly for the Peacekeepers. I spent the book wondering how they were going to get out of this problem, since in my mind they were definitely the good guys, although imperfect. To be sure, it was Spartan aggression that started this whole thing in the first place. But nope. No such luck.
Lal’s and Santiago’s sons meet in battle. Jahn Lal kills Victor Santiago. But not long after that, Corazon Santiago gets her revenge. Utilizing her own highly-trained super-squad of soldiers she calls her Myrmidons, she breaks down the walls of UNHQ, kills Jahn Lal, and sacks the city. Pravin Lal and all the remaining survivors flee the city.
The Spartans win.
At the very end, Lal contacts Santiago and does one of those “I’m tired and what are we even fighting for” bits, which apparently hits Santiago right in the honor, because instead of occupying UNHQ, she heads back home, allowing the Peacekeepers to rebuild.
And that’s the end of the book, except for an epilogue where Chairman Sheng-ji Yang finally shows up. It turns out he’s been watching the battle with great interest. Moreover, he notices someone that looks a lot like a member of Lady Deirdre’s faction, and she’s…controlling some mindworms!
And that, I guess, sets up the second book.
All told, this was a perfectly competent book, and I enjoyed it. The hardest thing about reading it was resisting the urge to put it down and go play the game. Reading it filled me with some real nostalgia and I have to say that I appreciated that.
I wondered about a lot of things before I started it, and I was somewhat surprised at how those things got answered. At first, I wondered how the book would balance the narratives of seven different factions without being overwhelming or sparse with them. The answer is that it just didn’t! Now I wonder if the other books are just going to be faction vs. faction stories as well. If so, since there are three books, it looks like one faction will be left out!
I also wondered just how pandery this book would be. I’m running on the assumption that the book was written to appeal to people who enjoyed the game and would like to explore the world behind it more deeply. As such, I was expecting a lot of direct references to specific things in the game. For example, I mentioned how the game was chock full of little epigrams and quotes from the faction leaders. I expected the book to make use of those somehow, maybe even weaving them directly into dialogue or something. But nope, nary a one was in this book.
There were some slightly more direct references, however, but they were at least thin on the ground. Vehicles in the book are directly from the game, stuff like laser rovers and whatnot. And one of the instigating events for the war between Lal and Santiago was the discovery of “high-energy chemistry,” which is exactly one of the technologies you can research in the game. And there are times when someone like Lal talks about setting up a secondary base because they found mineral deposits, which is exactly the kind of thing the player does.
But things like that weren’t oppressive, like some other video game tie-in novels I’ve read and won’t bother to mention.
I’d be somewhat interested in exploring the other two novels in this series, but for some reason or another they are monstrously expensive online. I paid fourteen bucks for this book, and I took a lot of convincing myself before I let myself do it. Still, I was super curious. The others, though, are even more than that. I’m seeing copies on Abe for forty, fifty bucks. Ain’t gonna happen.
And this was certainly fun for its own sake, but the book wasn’t so great that I’m champing at the bit to read more of them. I am, however, ready to go see how well the game holds up after twenty years, so I think I’m gonna go do that now.