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 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 â€˜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 â€˜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.