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The artsy side of gaming

Dead Space Catalyst Book Review

I have always stated that Dead Space Martyr is one of the best video game-based books I’ve ever read. Brian Evenson’s first novel in the Dead Space franchise does exactly what a novel should do: it fills in the gaps and gives us additional information that the games may gloss over. In this particular case, Isaac’s adventures always begin when things have already gone ploin-shaped, and he is left to clean up the mess and deal with the fanatics surrounding the Marker.

Because of this, there are always some unanswered questions surrounding the series such as: Why do things escalate as quickly as they do? Why do people worship this giant, evil chunk of rock? Why are the Unitologists as present as they are within the infrastructure of this future world?  Evenson’s first book does a phenomenal job of setting this up, but does the second book, Dead Space Catalyst, live up to its promise? Oh, you betcha.

Dead Space Catalyst takes place before the events of Dead Space, and after those of Martyr, and stars two brothers, Jensi and Istvan, who grow up in a poor dome on the planet Vinduaga. Jensi is the intelligent, rational brother, whereas Istvan suffers from occasional fits of violence and is mentally and socially unstable. After an unfortunate event which is beyond Istvan’s understanding, he is sent to a prison which is also a front for Marker research, leaving Jensi to try to find and subsequently rescue his brother.

What sounds like a run-of-the-mill plot is enhanced by Evenson’s amazing command of the English language. As he demonstrated in Martyr and continues in Catalyst, few people can accurately convey a sense of madness and deteriorating sanity as well as he. As is hinted at in-game, the Marker works by psychically communicating with humans near it. The kicker is that it is unable to intelligibly reach all people, which is why you see various levels of insanity and destruction as a result. For some, it registers only as a barely audible yet maddening hum which causes headaches, whereas others may see spectres of dead relatives which speak to them.

And therein lays the genius: the Marker accesses your memories and assumes the guise of a dead relative with whom you were particularly close. As an example, if you didn’t get along with your father, but you had a great relationship with your uncle, it will use your uncle’s image to communicate, and not that of your father. This is explored in a particularly interesting way with Istvan, though it would be a disservice to explain it further.

The story is surprisingly cerebral through nearly three-quarters of the book: those looking for space ships crawling with necromorphs will leave largely disappointed. Oh, sure, there are plenty of necromorphs and high-action sequences toward the end, but it is at its most interesting when it shows how insidious and dangerous is not only the Marker, but also its devout followers who believe it will lead us to a higher purpose through convergence.  (I should point out that the book does heavily assume you have read Martyr, as the birth of Unitology and the foundation for its fanaticism is laid out in that book. So be sure to pick that up first!)

Though all of the exploration and experimentation surrounding the Marker would be for nought if the relationship between Jensi and Istvan wasn’t rock solid, and in that, Evenson succeeds as well. While Evenson does a great job forming Jensi into the haunted brother who wrestles with guilt and loyalty to his unstable brother, it’s Istvan who really shines. His mental instability is, at turns, disarming and heartbreaking, especially in his brief moments of clarity and rationality. Seeing his deterioration at the hands of the Marker is that much more poignant when set against the Jensi’s dogged struggle to help him. It’s surprisingly heavy stuff for a video game-based book.

If you’re a fan of the Dead Space franchise, or if you appreciate a good extended look at established lore, it’s impossible to not recommend Dead Space Catalyst. It’s the type of book that should be standard to which all video game-based books hold themselves. Not only does it help fill in the intriguing, twisted world of the future, the characters are memorable and the writing is simply fantastic. It’s not just a great video game-based book, it’s a great book in general.

Our rating: A+

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