Dead Space: Martyr

Deleuze in the Diving Bell

I read B.K. Evenson’s Dead Space: Martyr novel per the recommendations of some reading group friends. For those who know me, this might be a surprise, since I generally despise and/or ignore videogame stories. In most cases, I can’t even follow them through the course of an entire game. Don’t ask me what Gears of War is about. I don’t know. Nonetheless, I played and enjoyed the first two Dead Space games, I like sci-fi and horror fiction, and I was told that Evenson is a good writer with some background in philosophy and critical theory. That alone is pretty interesting for a videogame novel.

It turns out the book is pretty good. I don’t have anything profound to say about it, but I thought I’d pull a few interesting quotes and comment on them while the book is fresh in my mind. (And incidentally, the book is an easy read—I knocked it out in two days.)

I won’t recapitulate Dead Space’s full scenario (Wikipedia is better for that), but the basic gist is that an engineer named Isaac Clarke finds himself stranded on or in various deep space outposts that are populated with necromorphs, a hyper-violent breed of space zombie built from the corpses of dead humans. People die, their bodies jumble, and mayhem ensues. Clarke uses all manner of repurposed engineering tools to maim and dismember these creatures since, for the purposes of ‘subverting’ standard shooting mechanics, they cannot die from headshots.

As you play, Clarke realizes these necromorphs are the result of a DNA-mutating virus emanating from an obelisk-like object called the Marker. And despite the obvious negative effects of dead people returning as monstrous body blobs, a religion called Unitology arises among people who believe the Marker is the universe’s means to obtaining eternal life. The founder of Unitology, you discover, is a fellow named Michael Altman.

Martyr rewinds a few hundred years from the videogames and focuses on Altman’s first encounter with the Marker (actually a larger, different version than you see in the games) and the eventual formation of the Unitology church. Evenson presents Altman as an unremarkable geophysicist who is called to Mexico, along with a cadre of other scientists, to explore the impact site of an ancient meteor. The researchers soon discover certain electromagnetic anomalies taking place deep within the crater, thousands of feet under soil and ocean.

I won’t spoil the rest, but Altman ends up hooking up with a shady mining/paramilitary corporation that decides to unearth whatever is beneath the crater. Hint: it’s the Marker, and bad things happen when they pull it up.

One benefit of reading in an established fictional world, especially a prequel, is that much of the foreshadowing is automatic. Authors can handle this with varying levels of finesse, either with a self-conscious wink wink you know what’s coming that feels cheap and easy or with careful subtlety. Evenson does a little of both, but when he succeeds at the latter, he really nails it.

In Martyr, we find out that the Marker causes strange hallucinations in nearby humans. They start seeing deceased love ones who urge them to variously help or hinder the Marker’s wishes (it’s complicated). The reactions to this effect range from Altman’s scientific rationalizations (‘This can’t be real’) to his girlfriend’s religious rapture at seeing her dead mother. Those who take this religious experience seriously begin to believe the Marker is meant to save them (yes, in the apocalyptic, Christian sense). The following passage, for instance, describes the first group of Marker converts gathering together:

Some people began clumping together in groups, sharing their experiences with the dead, speculating that the boundaries between heaven and earth had been broken.

I highlighted the sentence in my first pass because ‘clumping’ was such an unexpected verb (why not ‘gathering’?), especially followed by ‘experiences with the dead’ rather than ‘of the dead.’ In light of what happens in the last third of the book, the sentence takes on a morbid literal meaning. These people will be clumped into a mass of dead and living flesh, and the boundary that was broken turns out to be between hell and earth, not heaven. It’s a wonderful bit of foreshadowing.

I didn’t catch many overt references to Evenson’s theoretical interests, and maybe a videogame novel is the wrong genre to expect such musings, but I thought the following passages had an interesting critique (maybe too strong of a word) of Deleuzian-style immanence. Early on, Altman overhears a Unitologist scientist say:

“You must free your flesh, and unify with the divine nature of its construction…”

Later on, Altman questions the ‘freedom’ that the Marker inspires:

“What if Convergence means not eternal life or transcendence, but radical subordination? What if it means unity more literally, the destruction of the individual to a larger communal self?”

“Like the way some insect colonies function,” said Stevens. “The individuals all subject to the will of the colony, a kind of hive mind in control of all the individuals.”

“Yes,” said Altman. “Or maybe even more extreme. What if it’s being literal? What if it means somehow to transform us from many creatures into one?”

Of course, it turns out Altman’s fears are true, and the immanence of undead flesh threatens to subsume all it encounters. It’s immanence at its nihilistic extreme.

Where Martyr falters is the latter third. The necromorphs (spoiler) overrun the floating research facility and Altman becomes a Clarke/player surrogate, cutting his way through hordes of baddies as he attempts to re-sink the Marker. It feels like the most blatantly self-aware portion of the book, where I can imagine Visceral (the game’s developers) stepped in and said, ‘We love the psychological horror, but can you throw in a plasma cutter and some head stomping, because otherwise how will fans know it’s Dead Space.’ Evenson does an admirable job given his source material. He’s skilled at describing the weird body horrors from the series, even surprising me with vivid descriptions of familiar foes and game scenarios. But the action scenes of the latter third don’t match the tension and mystery of the opening chapters.

But even amidst the chaos of necromorphs run wild, Evenson manages to introduce the ‘creeper,’ a strange sentient ooze that I can only describe as a world-eating katamari:

It moved slowly toward them, attracted perhaps by the vibration of their voices or propelled by some other means. It wasn’t aggressive; it seemed to have another purpose. As it eased them back, making them feel trapped, Altman began to wonder what it was. It stripped the deck bare, got rid of all features. Transfixed, he couldn’t help but watch, thinking they were finally out of time. It destroyed everything in its wake, living or dead. And he wouldn’t be surprised if, when it did, it grew. How big would it get? Were there any limits? Would it consume the entire world?

I love this creature’s Cthulhu-like indifference. It does not pursue, it merely consumes. When one of Altman’s companions gets pushed back by an aggressive necromorph, stumbling into the creeper, his body vanishes wholesale. No sizzle or melting—his reality simply ceases.

The creeper also cannot be cut or burnt like the other necromorphs, so Altman leaves it be. It functions more as an inchoate, inscrutable obstruction than an active assailant. I don’t know if the creeper figures into the greater Dead Space mythos, but Evenson leaves its existence open-ended. The last we read of it in Martyr, it is still plodding along, growing.

Evenson gives the reader a similar, Lovecraft-esque description of Altman’s encounter with the Marker:

He still didn’t trust it. No, what he had felt when he touched the Marker was not love but nothing—total absolute indifference to the human race. They were a means to an end. What that end was, he wasn’t certain, but felt, more than ever, that for the Marker they were expendable, a necessary step on the way to something else. When the new Marker was constructed—and he had no doubt that that was what the Marker intended—what would happen then? He had stopped the Convergence, but perhaps by doing so he had jump-started a discovery that would lead humanity to an even worse fate.

Reading the characters’ speculations and reactions in the face of these unknowable, uncaring objects and forces, it made me wonder how it might feel to play a Dead Space game based on the early sections of the book, especially the early explorations of the crater and its surrounding seabed, the tension of submersion in a deep-sea vessel, the palpable fear of uncovering an object that is both ancient—predating human life on earth—but also completely alien—sentient but not alive, the progenitor of humankind but also unconcerned with its well-being.

I think videogames are an excellent venue to play out these palpable but impenetrable worlds, no dismemberment required. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part. I’m with Altman on that account:

He shook his head. Why was it that he kept on running up against things he didn’t understand? Was it a problem with him or a problem with the world?