The Stygian Conspiracy by Kodai Okuda

The Stygian Conspiracy by Kodai Okuda

The Stygian Conspiracy, by first-time author Kodai Okuda, is a bulky tome and quite an undertaking. The myriad pages are brimming over with a story of action, science fiction, and even some horror elements. It is a tale on a grand scale, both in time and space. Not content with a small moment or two with a libertarian flavor, the story tackles the big issues and concepts and makes no apologies, without forgetting that the plot and characters come first.

The story transpires in a future in which the human race has spread out through the solar system and taken some tentative first steps towards exploring other star systems. The population is roughly divided between the Eastern socialists and the Western capitalists, the latter of the two having newly emerged as a power again on the world, or better yet solar, stage. That description and its implicit chauvinism make me cringe even as I write it, but Okuda does much better with the characters, creating roles that defy the simplistic expectations set up by that line drawn down the middle. There are good bad guys and bad good guys and even, I think, a little room for debate.

It is a bold concept and a wild ride. There are space battles and daring personal missions, enmities and romances, betrayals and tough decisions. It lacks nothing of the right ingredients to leave a voracious reader with a satisfied feeling upon completion. If the reader wants nothing more than an epic tale of adventure with some characters to care about, he may well come away from The Stygian Conspiracy without complaint.

For the reader who looks for the deft hand of a novelist, however, there are some drawbacks. These detract a little from the fun factor of the book. A little polishing on a few points would make it a more complete work, in my opinion.

One small complaint I had was that space was not always realistic. This is not a problem for a movie like Star Wars, but for a book set right here in our backyard, and which sets itself up as realistic, it is puzzling and a bit distracting. The Asteroid Belt, for instance, was portrayed as something like what we saw in The Empire Strikes Back, whereas in reality a ship could pass through it and not even know. There were other times when one got the impression that bodies in orbit around the sun completed their orbits in the same amount of time. This was never explicitly stated, but there were a few moments where I was left wondering if, for instance, Earth and Ceres ever found themselves on opposite sides of the sun, and therefore very much farther away from each other.

The novel is longer than it needs to be, not because of an unfocused story or excess and unimportant storylines – this is one of the novel’s strengths – but because of two categories of things that want snipping. One is the description of vessels and the other is dialogue tags.

The Kentucky Class Assault Shuttle

The website for The Stygian Conspiracyreveals a remarkable amount of work on the details of the world. Every ship that appears in the book, or is even mentioned, has its own page complete with specs, descriptions, and history. The work that went into it impresses, to be sure, and the urge to get some verbiage out of that work is understandable.

However, to my way of thinking, every line should advance the plot, develop a character, create an atmosphere or give enough information for the reader to orient himself in the scene. I cannot think of any other useful thing for a sentence to do. The amount of description of these vessels is simply too much. I want to have an idea of what they look like, but I don’t feel like I need to be an expert. I think Okuda would do better to consider how much detail a reader is likely to remember and not go beyond that with his depictions. For a short while it is frustrating to have such a surfeit of detail, and then the eyes start to slide over such things.

The second space-saver would go even further to make the tale more aerodynamic. A dialogue tag can be used to establish who is saying what and how they are saying it, but in most cases these are obvious to the reader. Nearly every single line of dialogue in The Stygian Conspiracy comes with an explanation of who said it and how, complete with adverb and creative synonym for the simpler and preferable ‘said’.

Opening the book at random to pages 154 and 155 reveals the following exchanges:

“…with the remote command Live-wire,” she replied like an expert.
Leonard was beet red. “Oops.”
Elizabeth huffed without looking up from her screen as she whispered to no one in particular, “It’ll be a miracle if we survive this.”
Zhukov laughed aloud upon overhearing Lt. Warden’s remarks as he spoke, “Leonard, Athena, prepare to fire those torpedoes.”

“Alphonse, the main engine… near engineering,” Elizabeth said in a panic.
“I can see that, Lieutenant Warden,” he spoke calmly. “I just need a little more time.”
“We don’t have any more time, Zhukov!” she yelled at him.

“There, just as I thought,” Zhukov blurted out with confidence as he flew through the narrow area.

“We’ve got a big problem, Alphonse.’ Elizabeth gave Zhukov an I told you so look as she spoke to him.
“Leonard,” Zhukov spoke to him quickly, “use the… as you can.”
Alphonse’s voice never betrayed even a hint of fear as he spoke calmly to Athena, “Warrant Officer Corbin, load all the space torpedo tubes…”
“Yes, Commander,” they said simultaneously.

It could be that every line of dialogue in the book has an accompanying tag. Most of these should be swept away to allow the story to come through faster and more smoothly.

Another editing focus, albeit one without so much potential to shorten the book, would be to omit any clause that begins with or contains the word ‘obviously’. It represents telling instead of showing. If a character, after having been shown to fall back in a chair and kick his feet up with a sigh, is obviously tired, we will know without the explicit heads-up.

One final aspect of the book would, with some reconsideration, make for an improved work. I would like to see the characters experience their emotions more subtly, and with fewer drastic changes per second. In less than the space of a single page, a character may laugh uproariously, grit his teeth in anger, blush with embarrassment and guffaw once again. To write it takes a minute or two, maybe longer, so the author may not be aware just how rapidly his little schizophrenics are bouncing up and down. To read it takes only a few seconds, and it is apt to give the reader whiplash.

The work is imperfect, but it is a fun read, especially if the reader is drawn to science fiction anyway. There are two sequels planned, and if the stories are anything like the first installment, it could be quite a trilogy. If the next two benefit from some circumspect editing of the kind I have suggested above, they might really be something.

2.5 / 5 stars     

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About the Author

Matthew Bruce Alexander Staff Writer

Matthew is a libertarian living in central Ohio. A graduate of Ohio State University, he majored in Spanish and has published a work of libertarian science-fiction called Wĭthûr Wē.

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Kodai Okuda January 9, 2012 @ 2:06 am | Link

    Thank you Mr. Alexander,

    Your review was excellent IMHO.

    You sound like my editor. 🙂
    She actually reduced the book by 283 pages, many of which contained long, detailed descriptions of the various warships, mecha, and pre-history of the book.
    I gave her hell for removing it, but now realize she was correct as the book would be even more clunky than it is now and that was unacceptable.
    Thank God for editors. LOL!
    The speech tags were a tug of war with her as well.
    She wanted to remove all the ones that were part of the person-on-person dialogue, but not the ones that involved multiple characters (mostly during the battle scenes).
    She was right, I was wrong, and as you pointed out, the tags cause “Actionis Interruptous” while reading.
    That’s my fault and I accept making the mistake.
    In the second book I have been eliminating all of the speech tags where only two characters are speaking.
    If more than two characters are present in a scene, I’m going with Poul Anderson’s view that readers may get too confused and thus speech tags will be used (though sparingly).

    As for the “real space” elements.
    I tried to balance realism with the flare of Space Opera.
    Some people (beta readers) loved that, others absolutely hated it, so I had to make a choice and I chose the middle ground.
    However, I did address the concentric orbits of some of the astral bodies on page 51 of the book.
    Here is the portion:

    “In order for the fleet of UN cargo ships to reach Apollo base, they had to rendezvous with a fleet of transport ships. This fleet consisted of heavy ion engine space booster ships. These ships were able to dock with any UN cargo shuttle-type vessel and propel it at speeds of twenty to thirty thousand miles per hour. They designed the vessel to compensate for the eccentric orbit of Mars around the Sun and “catch up” with the Red Planet when it was at its farthest distance from the Sun. Without the boosters, the UN cargo ships were doomed.
    The UN stationed the transport ship fleet near the planetoid Icarus. Icarus was a one-mile-diameter planetoid permanently situated between Ceres and the planetoid Apollo by the UN for use as a refueling and supply base. Icarus was also the first space island in the Ceres-to-Mars travel route providing a clear beacon for UN ships to use as a navigation point during their journey to Apollo. Normally, UN cargo ships headed for Icarus used Ceres to build up speed and slingshot themselves at velocities that exceeded what their engines were actually capable of outputting. However, the EFF forces had made any attempt at a slingshot around Ceres impossible for the UNSC.
    To make matters worse, the UNSC forces had to take refuge at the Ceres-to-Venus refueling and supply base of Hermes. The Earth Federal Forces’ SpaceNavy had pursued them there for nearly thirty-seven days straight. The trek to Hermes was slow and dangerous. The UNSC fleet fought the EFF Kentucky class shuttles nearly all the way there. The jaunt stretched the food and fuel supply limits of the entire UNSC force to its maximum. Hermes was some 2,750,000 miles Sunward away from Ceres and in the travel route of Venus, not Mars. That was opposite the direction that Zhukov had intended to travel.
    The UNSC force had made it safely to Hermes. While at the one-mile-diameter planetoid, the shuttles of Zhukov’s fleet were rearmed and refueled with enough supplies to make it halfway between Hermes and Icarus. Once there, the UNSC fleet would meet the transport ships. The cargo ships of Zhukov’s fleet had to meet the transport ships midway because it normally would have taken them sixty-nine days at maximum speed to make it to Icarus, a journey of about 5,000,000 miles. Therefore, Zhukov had no choice but to risk the transport ships and order them to meet his shuttle fleet.”

    Perhaps I just didn’t write it well enough for readers to get the feel that all of these planetoids, asteroids, and planets are moving at various speeds around the Sun and are on opposite sides of Sol from each other at different times of the year?
    Or, the book is too damn big and it got lost in the sheer volume of events going on.
    That’s been a complaint I’ve heard over and over and have taken it to heart.
    I will endeavor to streamline the next one.

    Speaking of asteroids.
    I actually tried NOT to use the Star Wars model, but instead read up on the asteroid belt.
    I assume the portion you are referring to is the part where Zhukov and co. are flying at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour through an “Atlas Gap.”
    I gave a great deal of thought as to how I wanted to handle traveling through the asteroid belt at high velocity and realized that even a small baseball sized asteroid could do a heck of a lot of damage to a vessel traveling at 160,000+ mph/44 mps.
    However, I also had to take into account the fact that the asteroid belt’s total mass is less than 1/1000th that of Earth.
    Thus the “density” issue became something of an obsession while I was researching it.
    Oddly enough, it was the cassini probe’s passage through the belt in 2000 that inspired the scene in Chapter 9 with the “tunnel.”
    Again I balanced the need for action/adventure with reality.
    So while Zhukov and co. flew through the main belt in what I hope was an exciting scene, in real life, cassini made a “hum-dee-dum” boring trip through the asteroid field photographing only one tiny asteroid on its way through.
    On balance, I suppose I could have performed the task the scene required via spacemines, which is an option I had considered, but C’est la Vie.

    Thank you again for the very kind, concise, and honest review of the book.
    I appreciate you putting the effort in and taking the time to review this beast of a novel. 🙂

    Sincerely,

    -Kodai Okuda

    Reply
  • Matthew Alexander January 10, 2012 @ 7:16 pm | Link

    Thanks, Kodai! I’m glad you appreciated it.

    It sounds like you’ve learned a lot from your first book. I know I learned a lot from mine. Be sure to let us know when the next volume comes out. Best of luck with it!

    Reply
  • Kodai Okuda June 10, 2012 @ 12:10 am | Link

    Wait a sec, how did this review go from 3 stars to 2.5 stars?

    Reply
    • Matthew Alexander June 10, 2012 @ 2:37 pm | Link

      Hello! Sorry about the unpleasant shock. When I first read your book, we had just implemented the grading system and I did not have a feel for what the numbers meant. Sort of like bitcoin, where there is no prehistory of exchanges to determine its exchange value – and therefore the price is really volatile – I did not have a really clear conception of what the numbers meant. I don’t usually think in terms of a number grade when I see a movie or read a book. Geoffrey pointed out to me that there seemed to be some small inconsistencies in my grades based on what I said in the articles, so yesterday I went through my grades and nudged three or four of them. I don’t expect this will happen again.

      Sorry about the unpleasant surprise. The most important part was what I said in the article, which will not change.

      Reply
  • Kodai Okuda June 11, 2012 @ 10:22 pm | Link

    No worries Matthew,

    It’s not whether the change was from 3 to 2 or 3 to 4 that confused me.
    It is that it was changed at all.
    Most reviewers never alter their reviews or their ratings because it is frowned upon within the online review/writer community.
    I should know, I was sent quite a few nasty emails for altering my 4 star review of Tobias Cabral’s “Night Music” (not from Tobias, he is a gentleman) to a 5-star after rereading the book a second time.
    http://www.amazon.com/Night-Music-ebook/dp/B004CLYHKC
    Needless to say, I’ve never changed another rating since, and do not use the star system on my own website because of this.

    Like you sir, I also do not think in terms of “stars” and I much prefer reviews without them because it is too easy to just dismiss reading the review itself and falling into the impulse of 5-star “buy it” 1-star “skip it” without actually reading what the reviewer has said.

    With so many books to choose from these days readers are prone to just look at the “stars” and skip the review, and considering how much effort and detail you put into your reviews, I can’t see the star-system being a benefit to you.

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to my query.

    -Kodai

    Reply

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