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Resident Evil: Retribution by John Shirley

Resident Evil

When I was younger and a completist, I would always read the “other” books by the authors I collected. This included the novelisations. Many of these books actually proved quite interesting because, although they stayed within the broad framework of the scripts, they often shed light on the events only shown on the screen. Interior monologues also added depth to the charcterisations. These enhancements to the viewing experience gave the books a bonus quality. All that was more than twenty years ago. However, as an experiment, I thought it would be interesting to read a contemporary novelisation and, because he can write rather better than average, I picked Resident Evil: Retribution by John Shirley (Titan Books, 2012). I’ve seen two of the franchised films but, for reasons connected to my emotional health at the time, decided not to pay to see this latest addition when it did the rounds last year. As with the previous outings, the responsibility for the script fell on to the broad shoulders of Paul W S Anderson. In theory, this creative consistency should give the cinema franchise more heft. Except, of course, when the back themes under development are less than exciting.

For those of you who’ve been living in a cultural bubble for the last fifteen years or so, the Resident Evil phenomenon began life as a horror video game and then moved to take over all associated media. The cinema version personalises the original first- and third-person-shooter format by following the adventures of Alice as she battles to save herself (and the world) from an outbreak of the T-virus. Milla Jovovich has been battling flesh-eating zombies and other mutants throughout. Mr Anderson (no connection to The Matrix, of course) has been producing variations on this theme as the Umbrella Corporation’s genetic experiments produce a range of bio-weapons which then escape and cause an apocalypse. The hook is that Alice is the key to saving what’s left of the world. If she can survive and keep fighting, she will somehow find a way of either reversing the mutations or at least eradicating them so that the remaining humans can begin the slow task of rebuilding. All this is a not unreasonable premise but, somewhere along the way, it became complicated as different factions and groups, some independent and others formally within Umbrella, began to dispute what the final outcome should be.

John Shirley with funds in hand ready to get back to proper writing

John Shirley with funds in hand ready to get back to proper writing

When I began reading the novelisation of the latest film, I was hopeful the book would follow the conventions of other books written in a series. So as someone coming to the fifth instalment without having seen the fourth, I needed an update on what had happened after the third. Unfortunately, the book does not contain useful infodumps to bring naive readers like me up to speed. It’s sink or swim time. This forces a realisation that, without exception, the previous novelisations I had read were either of standalone films or I had always seen the preceding films in the series. I had no need of brief background notes to make sense of what I was reading on the page. In this instance, I was forced to Wikipedia so that I could try to make sense of the opening sections of this book. Frankly, it was all not a little incomprehensible. Being faithful to the screenplay is a wonderful brief when the only people you are writing for are the fans who know every last detail of who everyone is and how they came to be in these starting positions for the book to take off. I was lost and demoralised.

So here comes the inevitable bifurcated review. For those of you who are the guardians of deep wisdom on all aspects of Resident Evil, this book will no doubt broaden if not deepen your understanding of the script. There’s good forward motion in the plot leaving our two groups respectively in Washington and on Catalina. Neither group is entirely safe but Alice has had her powers restored so there’s hope. But if you’re like me and not well-versed in this gaming universe, you will think this beautifully written — John Shirley is incapable of writing badly — but not an enjoyable read. I prefer something capable of being understood in its own right and not depending on external knowledge to make it work.

For my other reviews of books by John Shirley, see:
Bleak History
Borderlands: The Fallen
Doyle After Death
In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of
New Taboos

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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  1. August 17, 2014 at 11:18 pm

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