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Perhaps the strangest book I've read this year:



I'll admit it: it was the combination of STAR WARS! and ZOMBIES! IN THE SAME GODDAMN BOOK! that piqued my curiosity. Until the Legacy of the Force books, I was a *huge* fan of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, and I still love Rebel Alliance-era stories. And zombies... well, you know how it is with me and survival horror and zombies. The more blood and gore, the better. (Especially if it involves very nasty weapons). That said... how could you go wrong with soulless, unstoppable, ravenous undead in the Star Wars universe?

Um.

Here's the premise: an Imperial prison barge (aptly named Purge) carrying 500-odd criminals breaks down in some remote region of space - but thanks to a strange twist of fate, there's a seemingly abandoned Star Destroyer drifting in the area. Of course, nothing ever good has ever come from sending boarding parties to check out seemingly deserted ships in the middle of nowhere (even if it's to scrounge for engine parts), and it comes as no surprise when one group fails to return, and the other comes back with gifts from the Star Destroyer in the form of a highly infectious plague that kills all but six people on board the Purge in the most hideous ways. Then, as said six people (two of whom are Imperial staff, and two of whom turn out to be very famous SW characters... which I should have anticipated, given the book's placement on the SW timeline: 19 years before the Battle of Yavin *facepalm*) are exploring the ship, they discover that the bodies, which had been piling up like flies wherever they turned, have mysteriously disappeared... only to converge upon the survivors in a massive, unstoppable,shrieking swarm, that sends the survivors scrambling through the docking shaft to the Star Destroyer, where another ten thousand zombies are waiting for them...

I'll tell you what I liked about the book: the fact that even the SWverse, with its Imperial Army, rebels, and hives of scum and villainy, isn't safe from their dead rising to maul and eat its denizens. These aren't your average Night of the Living Dead zombies; they move with the speed of Left4Dead infected, wield weapons like Nation Red undead... and they even have limited learning capacity. Bad enough that you have an entire Destroyer's worth of space zombies marking you for the main course; make that an entire Destroyer's worth of space zombies who can fire blasters (if only badly), and learn to coordinate their attack and "upgrade" simultaneously by means of unintelligible screaming, and your life is definitely up shit creek, with a lifespan of perhaps several hours. There's also more wanton violence and gruesome scenes than the rest of the Star Wars EU put together - *and* the unexpected appearance of two characters whom I've always loved. Joel Schreiber also gets geek points for introducing quorum sensing in the plot (*and* for mentioning Standard Operating Procedures) - something I have yet to encounter in any other plague/zombie book.

Unfortunately, the same things that make the book interesting also make it cringe-worthy. I know, they probably tossed the duo in to increase reader appeal, but in this case, it backfired pretty badly. While it's cool to have your favourite rogues show up in a Star Wars book, it also kinds of take the suspense *out* of the story because you already *know* they're going to survive the ordeal - and part of the appeal of survival horror stories (and actually, any kind of suspense story) is the fact that you won't know, up until the very end, who gets out and who becomes zombie food. (One reason why I couldn't stop reading Rebel Stand by Aaron Allston - which, incidentally, has absolutely nothing to do with the living dead - was because I was absolutely terrified that Wedge Antilles was going to die getting out of the base at Borleias, and that suspense led right up to the very end of the book). The characters are pretty poorly developed: it's obvious that everybody and their brother knows about Han and Chewie (oops), but even then they're like two random smugglers with famous names slapped upon them, with little substance to justify their presence. (Indeed, their behaviour throughout the book is somewhat OOC). The same can be said of the remaining characters: you do get back stories for the other survivors, but somehow I couldn't make myself *feel* anything for them (and it doesn't help that the father of two of the characters says something to one of them that hints at an interesting plot development, but turns out to be a red herring. Definitely anticlimatic).

The science is pretty bad, even for the Star Wars universe. I know, it's Star Wars, they've gotten away with pretty awful things in the past (the Millennium Falcon made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs? excuse me?), but even with the lowered standards, Death Troopers pretty much rams through the boundaries separating the implausible from the downright ridiculous. And that's even *after* you skip the biological impossibility of dead, decomposing bodies running amuck, which is the formula for just about every survival horror story around. (Save for Left4Dead in which the freaks are simply people infected with some kind of rabies-like virus that turns them violent). Once death has occurred, decay sets in, chemicals start leaking out of cells - including nerve cells -, tissues and organs start dying (starting with the brain), and *nothing* short of a demonic possession that wears a body like a set of smelly clothes is going to mobilise corpses that have been stinking up the joint for ten weeks. (And anybody who is interested in how zombies might arise should read Jonathan Maberry's excellent Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead).

For one, there's the computer's inconsistency when it comes to detecting lifeforms: if it can detect 500-odd zombies on board the Purge as they rise from the dead, how is it that it managed to miss the ten thousand or so that must have been marauding the Star Destroyer? (It only identified the ten or twelve humans still on board - and they'd been there for ten weeks, long enough for the zombies to rise a hundred times over). And then there's the nature of the infection itself: what it is (Schreiber says "virus", but viruses definitely do *not* form a mucilaginous slime that surges through a patient's body), how it spreads (by air transmission, but a small percentage of people are naturally immune... until they get bitten? say what? how is that even possible?), and the question of its pathogenecity (while quorum sensing - microbial small talk, really - is a rather common phenomenon in the microcosmos, it's limited to bacteria and slime moulds; viruses, which can only hijack host cells to make more copies of themselves, are incapable of communication. Of course, you could argue that the host cells synthesize the pheromones for them - but who'd be listening? surely not the viruses, which are made entirely of a protein coat and a genetic material core). Oh, and I don't buy the whole "they don't activate to full virulence until they've reproduced to such numbers that the host can't combat them": a virus' life cycle can only be lytic (where it makes many copies of itself, and they all cause the infected cell to go kablooey so that they can get out and infect more cells) or lysogenic (where the virus incorporates its own genetic matter into the host's genome, and all successive daughter cells carry a copy of this genetic matter in their genome, waiting to be released to proliferate as a virus later); but if they're going to mask their virulence, then it's the second pathway for them... which wouldn't exactly produce "such numbers that the host can't combat them", unless said host experienced a sudden, mass proliferation of cells akin to some kind of freak cancer (in a few hours?!). Okay, so maybe it's possible for the boarding group to be exposed to a *massive* infective dose and thus develop the kind of infection described - but then how would they spread the disease to the rest of the prison barge (and the rest of the infected to each other) while they're still asymptomatic? And - again! - in a couple of hours? How would the virus proliferate in the prisoners and personnel? Sure, I'm willing to suspend my disbelief, but there's only so much you can get away with even by claiming It's Sci-Fi. And no, I don't care if the Imperial mad scientists cooked up this designer virus, either. Schreiber should've stuck to simply calling it an unidentifiable microorganism.

There are a number of other problems including the layout and lighting of the abandoned Star Destroyer, and Schreiber's inconsistent ability at coming up with decently sci-f-y names for the characters (Pauling, White, Armitage, Greeley, Austin and Blandings all sound more like American/British soldiers in a WWII flick, and you just know *Gorrister* is from Harlan Ellison's epic I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. Not that there's anything wrong with a tribute to that, mind), the choppily short chapters, and the clichés. (Which are a major ingredient in survival horror stories anyway). But that's enough nitpicking from me.

In spite of its shortcomings, the book doesn't *quite* reek as bad as the zombies - as I've said, the premise of zombies in the Star Wars galaxy is intriguing enough to keep me reading, what more to say the gore - but it does leave something to be desired. But the tragedy is that there was good potential wasted in the form of a novel there. Now a Star Wars zombie *video game*... those long, sterile, deserted corridors, the flickering lights, the relentless clomp of stormtrooper boots, and the shrieking of a yet-unseen swarm... THAT I would pay good money for.

-------------

Want to know more about quorum sensing, or what happens after death? Check out these articles:

Small Talk in the Microbial World
The Processes of Death and Decomposition



[Yes, I wrote those as a student.]

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