Monday, June 24, 2013

Down Amongst the Dead Men

Down Amongst the Dead Men by Steve Lyons. A Warhammer 40,000 Death Korps of Krieg short story. Originally published March 2013 by The Black Library for Digital Monday. Approx. 17 pages.

Down Amongst the Dead Mean (DAtDM) is a short story that has been flirting with me from across the room for a little while now. I am a sucker for Imperial Guard stories, but my sole experience thus far with Steve Lyons' work was the lackluster Imperial Guard offering Ice Guard. And even though the Death Korps of Krieg look fearsome, intimidating, and completely badass in their WWI-styled German trench uniforms, they are also notable for being completely without personality. No, literally. They only know to fight. So at a glance, it seems like there is not much potential here; a bland author writing on an emotionless faction. This trepidation has kept me from purchasing Lyon's full-length Death Korps novel, Dead Men Walking, as well; that novel proposes emotionless soldiers fighting emotionless Necrons (I get it, that's the point, like the ending of Animal Farm, can't tell the pigs and the humans apart, etc.), with an emotionless cover. But maybe this story has a shot; billed as a battle between a Korps reject and a xenos horror, maybe there's a spark of hope for Lyons yet.

Honest word of advice; if you plan on reading this short story, and are not already acquainted with the Death Korps of Krieg, familiarize yourself with them now. They have a fairly interesting backstory fleshed out for themselves, and of course so snippets of their philosophies (if that's what you can term them) and history are mentioned in the story itself. Long story short, the Death Korps live on an extremely irradiated world, Krieg, the atmosphere of which was decimated in an atomic apocalypse which quelled a heretical uprising centuries ago. Driven to underground hives, the people of Krieg live to breed soldiers to die for the Imperium in their seemingly never-ending quest for forgiveness.

The framework of the story is simple enough; a young Death Korps trooper is holding a line against an unstoppable force, and, when his position is compromised, he heads to re-group and stumbles upon an even more insidious, xenos foe. Should he stick to battle doctrine, or go in pursuit of the new horror? With such a basic premise, it is up to the author to make the character(s) stand out somehow. That will not happen with a Death Korps trooper, as they have no personalities. Therefore, it was up to Lyons to incorporate Korps philosophy into the troopers' actions. Honestly, he did an ok job with it.

The 'story behind the story' in DAtDM is that the young trooper is actually a Death Korps reject, and as a reject (the reason for rejection on Krieg can be either from aptitude or genetic flaw), his sole purpose in life is to serve as a target for live ammo training exercises for the troopers that did make the cut. That unstoppable force advancing on his position are all his peers that he was raised among and trained with. But again, there are no bonds of affection or comradery, our young trooper does not even have a name, simply a number stamped onto his dogtag. As a planet soaked in radiation, Krieg has no resources to offer the Emperor, save soldiers. Advanced breeding programs churn out cannon fodder at an exponential rate, and the soldiers are simply taught to go and die, trying to minimize loss to the Imperium while maximizing opposing damage. This is demonstrated at one point in the story when the trooper realizes that, in losing his position, he expended only a few lasgun shots, but cost the opposing side heavy stubber ammo. If he had died in that manner, it was a worthy death.

But our trooper does not die at that point, and instead runs into a tyranid genestealer, another soulless creature whose primary objectives are breeding and killing (see, Lyons picked another example of the human and the creature mirroring each other). This obviously poses a perplexing choice for the trooper; Krieg doctrine leaves no room for independent thought, and his mission is to die in an exercise which he cannot win. However, he was also taught that the xenos is the greatest threat to the Imperium. In the end, he decides to follow the genestealer.

Is the troopers' choice one of weighing priorities, or a hope for recognition and/or glory? There is no way to ever know, and Lyons adds many questions like this along the way. It's an interesting method, to insert these inquiries, based off of the personal and moral traits that we possess, exhibit daily, and quite honestly, take for granted.

As a protagonist, we cannot say the young trooper is likable. He is faceless, a dour soldier in a greatcoat and rebreather mask. But through his situation and subsequent actions, he is both noble and pitiable. At the beginning of the story, I was trying to see the face behind the mask, trying to see if Lyons was going to find a way to push a little personality through a culture that suppresses it. At that point, the perennial questions were an annoyance; don't ask us if he's feeling this or that, the reader can deduce that on their own. But a different approach worked better; instead of standing next to the trooper, trying to peer through the lenses of his mask, I began to watch him from a distance, as if I were watching a nature show. I watched him scamper along the ruined landscape, between a rock and a hard place, like some forlorn little creature with jaws too weak to fend off either of two predators that present themselves. The questions became the commentary of a phantom narrator, who asks them in spite of the fact that he knows it is ultimately inconsequential. We already know this little critter is toast one way or another.

Lyons fares well in the action scenes too (this was the only saving grace in Ice Guard). When shots are fired, you feel the booms, and when it gets physical, you hear the crunches. There is a well-written scene reminiscent of the Perseus/Medusa encounter in the original Clash of the Titans.

In other facets of the story, Lyons' prose falters a bit. The landscape could have used a little more descriptive touch. Also, I did not care for the description of the genestealer. At first, it is only described as possessing a globular head, with six legs. If Lyons was trying to keep it as a mystery to us, as it surely was to the trooper, he blew it when he used the term 'tyranid body'. I don't think tyranid is an adjective. There are two types of readers that will be reached here; those who know what a genestealer is and those that do not. Those that do, would appreciate descriptive writing that reinforces the horrific appearance of this dread predator. Those that don't, will probably need to Google an image of one either during or after reading this story. That shouldn't be necessary.

One final thing to mention; I have stated in previous Black Library Digital Monday short story reviews that it is ultimately up to the reader to decide if the price matched the product. For the other two stories that I have bought, the cost averaged out to 10 cents a 'page'. But the text here is an anemic 17 pages, so close to 20 cents per. I cannot say that it is 'worth it', however I will not let the the perceived value affect the final score.

Here's what it is:
A decent little tale of a born loser proving his worth. A glimpse at a mysterious fighting force. A story that was not as bad as expected, but could've been a bit better.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Here we have a pic of a Death Korpsman. That's it. It looks like a Linkedin profile pic of a soldier of death. I am pretty sure that they dressed up a head section snippet from a pic like this:

Then again, who is going to complain? Those uniforms are epic. The Death Korps takes heavy styling cues from classic German military uniforms. And, setting aside what they stood for, in Word Wars I & II, the Germans were undoubtedly the best dressed guests at the party.
Nothing spectacular about the cover, but not bad either. At least you won't feel a bit ripped off by it.

Cover Final Score:


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