As always with my reviews, spoilers ahead. Not too bad, but a few.
One of my least favourite tropes in film, television and literature in general is that of the tortured badass searching for (or receiving) a chance at redemption. Y’know the type. Some ex-cop (always a bloke) who left the force after he accidentally shoots an innocent woman or fails to save a child (or shoots an innocent child, fails to save a woman), drowning himself in a depressive spiral of substance abuse and random women (bonus points if they’re hookers) working as a PI until that one case comes along to shake them out of it back onto the straight and narrow, or some such shit. But, goddamnit, before the incident happened they were the best damn whatever on the whichever, with a loving partner and 2.3 adorable kids. Or perhaps the character is the type to have spent so much time at work becoming the best whatever on the whichever that he’d neglected his family life, drowning out the guilt of a rightfully angry ex-partner and a couple of kids who went off the rails (or died) without a present and accountable father figure (it’s always a bloke) in a spiral of substance abuse and random women (bonus points if they’re hookers), working until they meet the little girl or boy who reminds them so much of their own neglected spawn that they’re able to shape up and be the spouse and parent they always meant to be. Don’t get me wrong, it’s made for some amazing and iconic characters over the years, but it too often seems to simply become a lazy way of providing a reason why this or that dark-loner-antihero still has a heart of gold despite all the bourbon and strange, and why he’ll suddenly go from being that filthy, drunken bastard to flawless action hero by the end of the movie/book/season. What I love about Dave Hooper – the protagonist of Emergence: Dave vs the Monsters, John Birmingham’s latest written adventure – is that he never stops being a selfish bastard.
The book never allows any allusions contrary to this fact. It starts with Dave in a helicopter on his way to his job as the safety boss on a BP oil rig off the coast of Florida that was in the midst of completing a record drill deep into the earth’s crust beneath the ocean (FORESHADOWING!). He’s hungover from an extended binge involving unholy amounts of grog, a pair of top shelf prostitutes flown in from Nevada and a lot of toppier shelfier blow probably not flown in from Nevada, paid for with a six month bonus that he himself admits should have been put towards paying his taxes or soon-to-be ex-wife (who he’d been habitually cheating on for years prior to their separation), with time he should have spent heading north for an access visit his two sons (that he hasn’t seen or spoken to in far too long). He stares out at the coast, dreaming of traveling to his boys instead of to the rig and finding a way to redeem himself in their eyes, while admitting to himself that he never would.
His world is flipped on its head when he arrives at the rig and discovers that it has been attacked by man-eating monsters from the under realms, gets lucky and kills the leader of the pack and in so doing is granted super speed, strength, senses, an increased metabolism, perfect physical form, the memories of the guy he killed and an enchanted splitting maul (basically a cross between an axe and sledgehammer used for splitting logs), gifts that will come in handy after he hooks up with a bunch of Navy Seals and helps deal with the monsters coming from the literal portals to hell that are starting to emerge.
In most other stories this would be considered by the protagonist as their chance at redemption, to become better people. Thankfully, Dave is not one of those protagonists. Throughout the novel he remains a selfish and conceited arsehole. He keeps important information from the men (and woman) planning for a war against the monsters out of fear they’d consider him crazy, despite all assurances otherwise that everything was already pretty batshit and they were pretty willing to listen to everything the inexplicable superhero had to say. His first concerns when providing a urine sample to the navy doctors trying to figure out what happened to him is whether or not they’d rat him out to his old employers at BP when they found all the blow in his system (they don’t find any traces, a result of his increased metabolism). Some of his first thoughts when he finally begins to get a grasp on the changes to his body are what chugging a bottle of spirits will do to him and how he’d react to snorting a line of cocaine, something he wants to try as soon as possible. He’s crude, occasionally has to catch himself before saying something racist (a problem he willingly admits to, thankfully) and more often lets it slip past, openly homophobic, a chauvinist who judges women immediately on how pretty they are and seems to allocate respect according to how unattractive they are or how unlikely they are to fuck him (case in point, if you read the book, his shifting thoughts on Professor Ashbury). Dave’s charming and friendly, definitely, quickly ingratiating himself with the other characters we meet in the book, but he’s still a twat, and at no point does he improve on any of these issues (though the book is part of a planned trilogy, so we’ll see what Dave’s like at the end).
Thing is though Dave still constantly and consistently does the right thing. When he learns that his oil rig is on fire his first thoughts are on getting down there and keeping his people safe. When he gets superpowers he doesn’t need to be threatened, bribed or otherwise convinced to help fight the monsters. It’s not part of some epic quest for redemption either. He just does the job that needs doing. Because if he doesn’t a lot of innocent people will die. Because it’s the right thing to do. Because he can.
The other characters are all competently written, though not all are as interesting as Dave is. If Birmingham has a flaw I’d say that he uses stereotypes to shorthand minor characters a little too often. Professor Emmeline Ashbury’s abrupt, direct, wonderfully profanity laden attitude is explained away by the fact that she has Aspergers. Professor Compton with his neckbeard, stature and constant whine is a fedora short of an internet meme, meant to immediately generate the ire of us lefties, feminists and SJWs as well as ignite our resentment of the sheltered bureaucrat. It’s a shame because when he does put the effort in, he writes some fantastic characters (I’m particularly fond of a certain Polish soldier in one of his previous series). I’d argue that the main navy personnel we meet are the most interesting of the minor characters. CPO Zachary Allen and Captain Heath are great counterbalances to Dave’s planned and past debauchery. They’re straight up good guys, honest when their jobs allow it, courageous, tough, kind and loyal. We only ever see them through Dave’s eyes, so while their characters are never entirely fleshed out beyond an outline and a few acts within their chosen profession of destroying enemies of the state, they still provide a starkly noble image against that created by constant internal monologue of Dave’s ignoble thoughts and general arseholery. What they provide is a standard of action, so that when Dave does right we know it, we have a perspective from which to judge.
The monsters of Emergence are gruesome and violent, their thoughts are brutal, primal and animalistic, their social hierarchy based on size, strength, power, intelligence and a feudal code of honour. The only perspectives other than Dave’s we ever get to see through is that of the monsters he fights, so they’re experienced more than explained. Some will find this irritating, annoyed by the lack of worldbuilding, but I honestly think it’s unneeded and can name a few stories where the exposition dumps about a society are unnecessary and out of place (I love you Bioware, but did you really feel that explaining dwarven society, law and custom and lore to a dwarven noble or commoner would ever not seem awkward?). There are the occasional bits of exposition, but they always feel contextually appropriate and are never too long. The prose is similar. You never feel like a character is using language that they never would, or that they’re misusing a pop culture reference (mind you, if I have one issue it’s that sometimes it feels like there’s too many references in too short a time). At the same time the story is graphic, going into every gory detail of every scene, though like the occasional bit of exposition it always seems appropriate and never out of place. The monsters are vividly detailed, though only when there’s time or need and only from Dave’s perspective (after all, what possible points of reference could a completely alien being use to describe itself?) The fights are usually quick but filled with chewed entrails and exploding heads. I enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone squeamish.
Honestly I purchased this book expecting to really enjoy it. I’ve been a big John Birmingham fan for a lot of years now, starting back with his Axis of Time trilogy and going on to his non-fiction work. His books are serious, but always contain an undercurrent of black humour that isn’t for everyone. I remember watching an interview in which he remarked that he still had right wing Americans complain about naming the aircraft carrier from a near future US Navy the USS Hilary Clinton (“after the toughest wartime president in history”), because they didn’t understand that it was just him taking the piss (of course this interview was before it looked like such a prediction might come true). Emergence is not the lighthearted adventure that the simple and very descriptive title implies. But it is self-aware. It knows exactly how unlikeable Dave Hooper is and there’s a subtle wink’n’nudge as it points out exactly how bad the hero is.
Dave Hooper is an arrogant, racist, lazy, selfish, homophobic, chauvinistic, cheating, lying, substance abusing bastard. He spends half the book whining about his lot in life and half of the rest whining about other people whining. He’s never so bad, however, that you want to see him lose. He’s never so bad that you want to see him beaten down, injured or dead like some other protagonists I won’t mention now (SCHADENFREUDE!). He’s never so bad that he stops being the hero.
That’s the clever part about the character. I didn’t like Dave, but I still wanted him to win.