Borderlands: The Fallen by John Shirley
Well, in the spirit that, when I follow an author, I tend to read all he or she writes, here goes with Borderlands: The Fallen by John Shirley (Simon and Schuster, 2011). The critical piece of information for those of you who, like me, live in a book and not a box, is that Borderlands is a first-person shooter/role-playing video game produced by Gearbox Software. For once, I actually called up Wikipedia — I tend to assume it’s reasonably reliable on popular culture — and see that this book features one of the four characters a player can elect to “be”. Hence, I was introduced to Roland who used to be a member of the Crimson Lance Army, the mercenary force employed by the Atlas Corporation. Following the game, we’re on Pandora which, like Harry Harrison’s Deathworld series, has predators that prey on predators that prey on humans when given half a chance. So, since there are a lot more critters than there are humans, most humans actually stand no chance except when it’s inconvenient for the plot. The lure for anyone to be on this planet is there are “ruins”. Yes, like Kilroy, aliens were here and left signs of their passing through. They also left “vaults” in which people with the right skills can find “treasure”. It may just be weapons or it can be new technology to improve the quality of life in the human universe. So, in the titular Badlands, bands of treasure hunters and mercenaries fight each other and the local wildlife in the hope of finding this treasure lying abandoned or, if they are really lucky, locating a vault and then being able to open it without having a small horde of guardians emerge and slaughter everyone.
With all that essential background now squirrelled away wherever you keep such nuts of information, we boot up (those laces are a pesky nuisance, but do them up tight and they keep out the predatory ants and other nibbling nasties) and roll out of Fyrestone in pursuit of treasure. Meanwhile, just coming into orbit is a ship of fools, one of whom actually plans a covert landing. As a result of sabotage, the ship crashes and burns which is quite difficult in the vacuum of space, but three members of the same family are distributed around the planet by random escape pods. Naturally, they are possessed of basic survival skills and some specialised knowledge. Zac is the idiot who thought it would be a breeze to drop in. However, he’s an engineer and, who knows, his ability with a screwdriver may come in handy. His son, Cal, is great playing electronic games — presumably he’s seen how this one comes out so starts with an advantage. Like Mario Bros., he also runs and jumps which is an asset when being chased by something hungry. Finally, we have Mummy Marla. Her weakness is that, having the right body parts, she’s highly desirable to the mercenaries and other random creatures with a male aspect on the planet. They will fight to keep her alive for their own pleasure. However, she has been studying the planet’s wildlife and may be able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the various beasties. Or she may just be able to shoot which may be more useful.
So Zac teams up with Berl, Cal with Raymond, and Mummy with Vince. For slightly different reasons, they are all heading for the same co-ordinates and they ain’t gonna let nothing get in their way. This is not a book dealing in nuances. It’s all kill or be killed and be quick about it. There’s a slight veneer of intelligent life because Raymond gets to be a surrogate Daddy to superkid who can shoot and drive like a professional because of all his VR experience, and Mummy gets to compare Vince with her missing husband and finds Vince a not unattractive companion for a few fleeting moment. As to Zac and Berl. Well, they’re both somewhat ornery and cantankerous. Naturally, after an initial exchange of opinion, they achieve a kind of grudging mutual respect. Put another way, the book is actually about trust. The chances of survival are significantly increased if people can work together effectively. Sadly, Vince proves a hollow reed and Marla must negotiate with the tunnel rats which is a rather embarrassingly bad section in the book. And, at that moment, it came to me how dim-witted I am today. If I had been wearing my high-powered and patronising brain, I would have realised this epic masterpiece is written for the teen boys who play these electronic games. The vocabulary and sentence construction are indelibly fourteen in spirit. So nothing outrageously bad can happen. Yes, people get shot and eaten — there are cannibals who tire of snacking on the local meals on legs — but none of our primary characters are ever seriously at risk during the early to middle stages of their journeys. You will have to read it to see what happens at the end. Not everyone survives (gasp of horror!). If Wikipedia is reliable, John Shirley has not produced a novelisation of the game. This has a different ending.
So Borderlands: The Fallen is John Shirley wearing his commercial hat. There’s a proven market for books based on games, comics, films, and so on. The loyal fans collect associated materials and there’s no doubt a mortgage to keep up-to-date. Not unnaturally, an author accepts these commissions. Frankly, it’s completely untypical of Shirley’s usual writing style and should only be attempted either by a Borderlands aficionado or a die-hard fan of John Shirley (like me).