Bugs in the System, various authors - 2 Stars
It must be a great feeling to have a perfect understanding of what’s gone on before because that way nothing will ever, ever be stale again. I, for example am blessed with an infallible recollection of every moment in history I’ve ever read about, from the day the Japanese bombed Guernica to the crowds waving hands in the streets, and lighters by night, when the US signed the Paris Climate Accord. Pity about all the fossil fuel they were burning. Elephants may have short attention spans on the subject of sci-fi but not me. Learn from your mistakes? No need. The first lip plumping mask I tried recently did leave a weird polygon stain around my mouth (and naturally the doorbell rang when my face was glued in rubber cowpat) but do I remember that in the excited grip of buying another one (everyone knows a debit card isn’t real money), it said a different brand name on the box and therefore the contents could not possibly be the same or leave the same three day tidemark. I’ll let you know. If you’ve had the same experience, please watch the Youtube video here and consider joining the class action: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7HKkR5-x9Y
That's why I was overwhelmed to read the mould-breaking science fiction compilation Bugs in the System, companion to the role playing game “We Hunt Bugs”, for which I Googled and Oogled but can’t see on sale at the time of writing. Hard to get means good, right, like exclusive access or something. RPGs are a kind of entertainment where people dress up, play characters that will be in-theme with other characters around them and then re-enact or otherwise express themselves in words and then physically until they’re pretty shagged out, have a hazy recollection of what they did, find themselves banned from public parks and the experience is over. Five years later the same people will still be doing this but calling it dating.
The first story, Lost in Space, is about someone who likes to shoot bugs, how he thinks and why he does it. The second story, The 0.001 Percent, is about how almost no one would want to do the job of hunting bugs. I can’t remember much about the third story so I’ll gloss over that one. The Hunter and the Suit is the best of the lot, where a famous hunter is chased by a surprisingly capable debt collector. If you were writing a book to complement this RPG, it might have been more sensible to grow this individual short story component into a full length novel and wave away the others. It’s a hard recommendation but there it is. Not bad, as it had an interesting nucleus of plot as well as guns and bugs. The next story, MacDaddy, is about guns and bugs. The last, Blue Sands, Red Sun is about escaping a master-criminal, agent of chaos, sort of bug. One of the stories has a robot dog in it that generates the single unexpected twist in this compilation, so that was welcome.
There’s this smashing line where someone slices open an alien creature’s belly and says “I thought they smelled bad on the outside!” Now that’s a good piece of writing and I can imagine that they could even persuade a great sci-fi actor to say those words in a film, perhaps on some ice planet somewhere.
Bugs guns guns bugs bugs guns. This is a book about grunts splatting different kinds of lumpy space bugs in the innards of infested space ships with their soldier weapons. I don’t have allergies so it must be the guns bugs bugs guns repetition that makes me sneeze. Okay, so it is a collection of short stories based on a shoot-em-up game which is presumably inspired in turn by the story of the jerk jarhead soldiers who go to fight the bugs in the film Aliens and get removed from the gene pool and perhaps also the Starship Troopers films, where more bugs go splat to the delight of a similar crew-cutted brethren. There are arcade games that do this and very little else. Bug, bang. Bug, bang. Bug, bang.
Anyone who thinks war is some kind of sport would only have to listen to my local newsagent – and he fought in Iraq. It means being unable to talk to your family, not knowing what’s happening outside your unit, poor equipment and painful boots, no confidence in your own leaders, losing friends stupidly, lack of sleep, scrapping for food, weeks on the road, re-used field dressings, expired medicine, serious moral question marks over the treatment of prisoners, ratting out deserters in some shelled out hospital, having your position over-run, blood in the sand and getting extracted back to Blighty where they give you a hard time qualifying for your invalidity pension. He was a little vague about which side he was on.
There’s someone alive. There goes our salvage. Hmm. There’s also “The Company” behind everything, looming over all the expendable soldiers like Mt. Fuji’s parent company.
Then there’s an exciting scene where they discover a barely living body but just as they’re trying to help, a small creature explodes out of the belly and they have to spray the room with a flamethrower. Fancy that. The German name for this item is a flammenwerfer, which for some abstract reason I find to be more satisfying. “It werfs flammen”, in the words of the meme.
We hear in one of these stories that copper wire was invented by two company executives fighting over a penny, a joke that worked about forty years ago when Billy Connolly first told it and people really spent copper pennies but not ideal for a future presumably without coins, where it says they have electronic “seed” credits.
I thought there were no women at all in this book but within sight of the end one appears and gets called princess because that’s what women in space get called, isn’t it? In the 1950s it would have been doll and in the Australia of last century it would have been Sheila, but nothing else changes. Then, just to build a body of counter-evidence to demolish this observation, a Russian mercenary who says “Da”, the only word everyone knows, takes his helmet off and turns out to be a woman after all. Too many male characters? Easy to solve. Make one of them a woman. It’s just a name change, right? Classic. Pub, anyone?
The trouble is it’s all been done before. Without something new to write about, there’s a sensation of going through the motions without Ripley (who was also a bloke, let’s face it). Bug, splat, bug, splat.
“Confused, like a zib.” Now THAT is something new, hinting at a back history of zibs that the characters could explain to you but there’s no time to do that right now. It sounds small but there’s the little catch that swings a door to a whole new warehouse of detail that helps to fill out the world of this one. Just as Archimedes said “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it and I shall move the world”, give me a zib and an author can make you believe in a world.
The various well-meaning writers who contributed to this collection clearly wanted to have fun and create some stories around their favourite shoot-em-up game, of which this collection may be an unadulterated and accurate representation. They also love their sci-fi history and want to pay tribute to it. However, I’ve seen books to complement games which have been done so much better and have had original things they’ve added to the theme. This collection has been fun, included a lot of nervous bug-splatting moments but didn’t challenge perceptions or create enough originality for me. If you love the game though, this will surely feed your insatiable bug hunting appetite – go bang. There are also some Aliens and Star Wars stories in book form that you might want to check out though.