Somehow, I wasn’t aware that there was an official novelisation of 1993 strategy/everything game X-COM until just last month. Given my decades-long fixation with X-COM, this was rather like discovering that there was a book about my mum that had passed me by completely.
Diane Duane’s slim text X-COM: UFO Defense – A Novel, published in 1996 by game guide firm Prima, has long been out of print (and never made it to e-print), so despite long scouring of fansites my only option was to explore the secondhand market, which in general wanted over £20 for this 250-page paperback. One joker’s even asking £500 for it. Fortunately, a lucky eBay bid got it to me for a mere £11, and so it is that I now own this fascinating oddity: a novelisation of a strategy game, written by an author with a long history of penning books based on existent sci-fi franchises. Could it truly recreate the tension and horror of X-COM? The thoughtful trauma of the minute-to-minute decisions and the long game of base-building and troop-nurturing?
There are two major things to know about this book.
Firstly, it really does understand X-COM.
Secondly, it doesn’t understand X-COM in the slightest.
The novel’s primarily told from the perspective of an X-COM base commander, one Jonelle Barrett. She’s been heading up an alien defence headquarters in Morocco but does such a good job that she’s tasked with constructing and managing a second one in Switzerland. Author Duane seems reassuringly familiar with the economy of X-COM: the need for hangars, Mind Shields, hyperwave decoders and living quarters, how there’s never quite enough money for everything, and how the budget for these is supplemented by selling alien artifacts and corpses to shadowy folk with unclear motives. She’s either played the game extensively or been given a very thorough breakdown of it (a Prima strategy guide, perhaps?)
But the battle scenes, the descriptions of the turn based, tactical meat of X-COM – these are what made me strongly suspect that this book mightn’t have been any kind of passion project, but instead, work-for-hire with a checklist of weapon and alien names to mention. Throughout, the book is a perversely jolly romp, with the strongest negative emotions anyone feels being ‘mild annoyance’, ‘slightly worried’ and ‘a bit of a hangover.’ This despite regularly seeing their friends die, the Earth constantly threatened by inhuman invaders and the discovery that someone within the base is working with the aliens. Indeed, the only attempt at any emotional resonance throughout is Jonelle’s casual relationship with one of her best soldiers, which carries all the romantic gravitas of a sex scene in a Jean Claude van Damme movie.
The battles, meanwhile, have about as much tension as waiting in line for a latte at Starbucks, with each soldier death happening off-camera and inciting precisely zero reaction in anyone else. Every fight is two massed armies clashing in all-out open warfare – at one point, numbers are given as 30 X-COM operatives versus 120 aliens – with none of the stalking, hiding and sick-to-the-pit-of-the-stomach gambling on low-odds shots we might expect from X-COM.
The drama is instead hung around reckless, high-melodrama actions such as exploding a landed alien battleship, crashing an Avenger in a lake and, in an absurdly long-winded opening chapter about nothing, looking for coins that will activate the floodlights in an alien-besieged Italian plaza. Very few of the soldiers are ever even named, and those that perish rarely have the cause of their demise described. The anonymity of the soldiers could be said to play to the cold ruthlessness of the source game, but at the very least there is a need to know who’s dead, under what circumstances and what the practical effects of this loss might be. That the perspective is almost unwaveringly that of a commander who doesn’t put his/her own boots on the ground (though Jonelle does in the game’s limp climax) is obviously true to source, but to ignore the loss/replacement angle is to ignore an equally critical and appealing aspect of what makes X-COM X-COM.
The plot’s even lacking a defined start and end – it’s all middle, leaping straight into what roughly maps to the late but pre-Mars stages of an X-COM campaign, concluding with nothing much changed and throughout presuming the reader is already so well-aware of every X-COM foe and armament that there’s no need to describe any of them.
So all we hear about hulk-like, genetically-modified X-COM posterboys the Mutons is that that they’re big, all we hear about the notoriously terrifying Chyrssalids is that they have claws and make zombies, and all we hear about Snakemen is that they’re called Snakemen. I suppose it is fair to presume that anyone buying a novel based on a videogame already knows the videogame and as such doesn’t need laborious explanations of elements they understand just fine as it is, but even so I’d been hoping to have careful, evocative descriptions of monsters I’d only ever known as a handful of 256-coloured pixels. If nothing else, I wanted to know more about those skintight catsuits Mutons wear.
When it’s not busy spending hundreds of words talking about Swiss public transport, it’s a rapidfire series of namechecks, with every alien, every weapon and every ship type all in play at once and serving no particular purpose of their own. Occasionally, the book seems to realise there is potential for more than simply listing events, sending out sadly short-lived tentacles of thoughtfulness. It briefly chews on the idea that Sectoids have been troubling humanity for centuries, thus giving rise to the conspiracy theory mainstay of the little grey man, and raises the possibility that the physically puny, psychically mighty Ethereals were once like humans and as such is humanity treading the same dark path?
Alas, this harder stuff is just part of the blunderbluss spray of hollow namechecking, weightless humour and broadest-stroke sci-fi concepts that runs through the novel. It reads almost like stream of consciousness, randomly switching from repeated gripes about the sandwiches in the X-COM canteen to ponderous descriptions of regional Swiss politics to conversations about pedigree cow breeds to what’s almost an advert for the Italian tourism department to a ‘the enemy is among us!’ sub-plot that lasts all of two pages to a tedious document of a train journey that takes five.
In other words, there’s a very good reason I hadn’t heard of this novel before now. I confess I had been ridiculously excited when it arrived, as while I didn’t expect a lost classic I was anticipating suitably leery descriptions of brutal deaths at the hands of horrifying alien monsters, entire chapters written from the point of view of a terrified man hiding in the corner of a darkened barn and gruesome blow-by-blow documentation of alien autopsies.
Instead, it’s a snappily-written but constantly distracted and entirely superficial Saturday morning cartoon that screeches to an abrupt, unsatisfying halt after having spent more time talking about Swiss farmers’ prize cows than it does UFOs. X-COM: Cow Defense might have been a better spin-off than Interceptor was, mind.
For all these failings, either through misdirected dramatic ambition or plain old silliness, I love that X-COM: UFO Defense – A Novel could even exist in the first place. It’s essentially off-the-cuff fan-fiction as competently but shallowly written by someone I’m far from convinced is a fan, but the mere idea of words dedicated to soldiers flying Lightnings and attacking Silacoids with plasma weapons pleases the eternal 13-year-old in me more than it really should.
(I would kill whole armies of men to write an X-COM/XCOM novel myself).
(Please can I write an X-COM/XCOM novel?)
Eternal credit to c-Row for the ’50 Shades of Grays’ pun.