Elite was the first open-ended “space sim” video game, released back in 1984, and spawning two sequels in the mid-90s. Last year it was born again with the ambitious Elite: Dangerous. And along with it came a whole mess of original novels set in its universe.
The games have the same basic premise—the player is given a ship and has to make his or her own way in the universe. That’s it. You can be a trader, miner, explorer, pirate, bounty hunter, whatever. There is no story script pinning you down and no plot hammer forcing you to the next cutscene. It’s the original sandbox game.
Actually, saying Elite has no story is a bit misleading. There is a very large and persistent universe going on in the background, spanning three major factions: the Federation, the Empire, and the Alliance. Politicians, business moguls, even a pirate king all fight to hold onto or expand their influence, some through diplomacy, others through finance, and still others through force. There is no easily defined good or evil side, each has admirable and less-than-admirable traits. It’s up to the player to find their place among them, or stand alone.
The game’s news network, GalNet, updates almost every day with things that are happening in the universe. Since its release, the Federation’s president has died in a hyperspace accident and replaced by a far more militaristic leader (2016 update: turns out she’s not dead after all, what a twist!). The Emperor was murdered on his wedding day, ultimately resulting in his illegitimate daughter taking his place. Strange alien artifacts have been popping up, causing many to try and unravel its mysteries. Whispers of conspiracy abound, minor wars are fought, and plagues can ravage worlds.
But the key word here is background. It’s the same kind of impact CNN and global politics has on your everyday life, which is usually next to zero. Your story is your own, as are your allegiances and ambitions. Even cooperating with other players is optional, with some choosing to support a faction in large organized groups, while others remain a lone wolf, going wherever the wind blows.
This is actually the main strength for a novel set in this universe. Like the game itself, there are no real restrictions to the stories one can tell. The sandbox, and its toys, are all readily available. There are already eight or so novels so far and one anthology, Tales from the Frontier, which collects stories by 15 authors from around the world.
The downside is that there is no character touchstone for a reader to relate to, and characters are the key to holding reader interest. In a Star Wars or Star Trek novel you’ve got familiar faces the reader will instantly connect with. Even the Mass Effect novels kept secondary characters involved to maintain that tie. In Elite, it’s all up to the author, so they better be up to the challenge.
Drew Wagar’s Elite: Reclamation, is definitely up to that challenge. It doesn’t provide cookie cutter good guys or bad guys, instead playing in a wide range of gray.
The novel quickly immerses you in the unforgiving nature of galactic politics, with a vital mining colony bombarded and taken over by the Empire, and a legal loophole preventing the Federation from doing anything about it. After three years of a deranged Senator’s rule, an orchestrated coup that was meant to put a more stable candidate in charge backfires, with the heir apparent first abducted by a pirate lord, then unintentionally abducted again by a young pilot hoping to make a name for himself.
While politics and intrigue are involved, they are not the focus of the story any more than the Death Star is the focus of Star Wars. The Senator’s daughter, Kahina, is intentionally difficult to like at first, though it’s easy to see that she comes by her prickly attitude honestly. Her mentor, Dalk, shifts seamlessly into whatever environment he’s required to be in—household tutor, rebel subversive, loyal Imperial, bounty hunter, yet at the same time he’s always on course with his own personal agenda.
The pirate queen Octavia is cruel, sadistic and efficient, to the point that she’d be perfectly at home in the world of Game of Thrones. And much like someone from Westeros, her deeper motivations and interest in Kahina aren’t what they seem to be at first. They’re a whole lot worse. Meanwhile, the young pilot Hassan is pretty much in over his head with this bunch.
Drew does a good job of incorporating the obligatory technobabble and exposition in a fluid and unobtrusive way. It’s always a tricky thing, hiding the “tell me professor” moments or trying to incorporate a tech-tech solution without sounding like an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, but Drew does it well.
The big question for any adaptation or expansion of a property, though, is whether or not it stands up on its own right. Does Elite: Reclamation work as a standalone SF novel? Yes, for the most part. There are some things someone unfamiliar with the game world might take issue with. The nature of the Federation and the Empire feels a bit underdeveloped, though we do see more of what the Empire is like through Kahina’s pre-coup life and Dalk’s various roles. But honestly, the same could be said for any standalone Star Wars or Star Trek novel.
Ultimately it’s a minor quibble since the focus is on the characters caught up in an elaborate chase, where nobody knows who to trust, or what their real intentions are. This is an SF adventure that subverts expectations as often as it flies straight into them, and the end result is a story that feels more layered and complex than your standard pulp adventure.