If you ask me what my favorite fantasy series is, I probably won’t have to hesitate too long before churning out a list of 5, debating with myself as to the respective merits and flaws of each series, and ultimately saying ‘if I have to pick…no, I can’t’.
But if you ask me what my favorite sci-fi series is, especially if you ask for an epic series, there won’t be much doubt. Sure, I might hem and haw over I, Robot, and whether it qualifies as a series, and I might linger briefly on the formative nature of the Foundation series, but while I’ll stop here or there on the way, I know exactly where I will end up: Deathstalker by Simon R. Green.
It’s hard to categorize Deathstalker. At first glance, it seems to be everything that exemplifies the Space Opera genre, to a degree that is both admirable and embarrassing. After all, the title (taken from the main character’s clan name), is DEATHSTALKER. I have to warn you, this post is going to be so full of minor spoilers (highlight white-space to read spoilers) that it might be unreadable past this paragraph. But the spoilers are not necessarily of the plot type, but of the ‘holy crap, this book is so ludicrous’ type.
So, from the start, the main character, Owen DEATHSTALKER lives in your typical tyrannical Space Opera empire. He is the ‘last of a noble clan’, which you later find out kind of sort of used to be a big deal. His clan experimented with magic space science, and now most of its descendents can become superhuman for short bursts of time. He is exiled at the start of the book (the back of the book says as much!), and so in response fights and pilots his way through his royal guard, incoming imperial fighters, and two star destroyers. When he escapes, aided by a lovably bitter smuggler, he sets in motion a revolution against the empire, joined by failed rebel leader Jack Random (you can’t make this shit up). He ultimately teams up with the universe equivalent of the cybermen, men who have physically augmented themselves to be androids, including one who has re-found his humanity and autonomy. Their quest to find weapons, ancient secrets, and an army leads them to find the ancient castle of the Deathstalker clan (which has ancient, somehow better tech, and is ALSO A SPACE SHIP). When they seek the cyborg army to awaken it, they also find a maze which hastens evolution, giving them super-powers that only continue to grow throughout the series. The Imperial fleet arrives, and blasts the planet from space. They find out that they can create a psionic force field to save themselves. Finally, they are forced to hold off an imperial army while two of them awaken the cyberpeople, fighting off a monster Giger would be proud of, which ultimately kills one of them (don’t worry, he’s brought back to life in later books). Oh, and the reason the empire seemed to know where they were at all times? Turns out (pretty significant spoiler follows) there was a traitor in their midst: (the following text is a much more extreme spoiler) the trusty AI of Owen Deathstalker, named OZYMANDIAS. HE NAMED THE TRAITOR OZYMANDIAS.
The sheer ridiculousness only goes up as the series goes on. This only touches on the plot of Owen Deathstalker, but there are other, fantastic characters within the Empire who give sight into the corruption of the Empire.
And if you read it like a space opera book, it will feel like one: over the top, melodramatic, wholly unrealistic, and ultimately, a bit silly. This could describe almost every book by Simon R. Green, as his other series’ are about a paranormal James Bond character and a team of Ghost Hunters. And as a young teenager, I found this highly enjoyable.
However, I have grown to see these series’ (upon re-reading them as a sort-of adult) in an entirely different light. They aren’t over-the-top because they’re poorly written and aimed at teenagers, they’re over-the-top because they are 100% works of parody. The dialogue between the characters is repetitive, snappy, tropey, and ultimately almost self-mocking. Why? Because everything about the series mocks itself, mocks the false gravitas of the space opera genre in general.
The basic premise of space opera is this: that one or two or three or ten or twenty people can affect a whole galaxy. Simon Green shows us what those people would have to look like to ACTUALLY do that. They have to be caricatures, they have to have capabilities well beyond the boundaries of humanity to the point where you question whether they are indeed human (Warhammer 40k and much of sci-fi touches on this concept). And when you have a few, super-human characters, every other character has to be super-human (or an alien/robot) to compete.
And what happens to everybody who’s not? They get left behind. Nothing matters at that point but your cast of super-humans. And what happens when super-humans fight? Devastation. Cities are destroyed, planets are ravaged, and ultimately, the super-humans still remain. Comic books answer ‘what happens when super-humans fight?’ with ‘there’s some collateral, but good prevails’. How does Deathstalker answer this question? Perhaps that’s too much of a spoiler to put here, but Green doesn’t paint nearly the pretty picture you’d expect. If I can end with a quick analogy: what happens when the Death Star is destroyed? The rebellion celebrates, Ewoks dance, and the system gets fixed.
According to Green, what happens is that millions of families go hungry because their breadwinners have all been killed, the status quo largely remains because of political inertia, the heroes are left broken and tired and embittered and feared, and ultimately, die alone and hunted, because the super-human cannot coexist with the human for long without cause. To kill the big bad, the heroes become the next biggest, and most people can’t tell big from big bad.