I recently finished reading “Heroes Die,” an excellent sci-fi/fantasy novel by Matthew Stover. I don’t post much about books around here, but this work is so fascinating, it requires a mention.
Stover wrote one of my favorite Star Wars novels, 2002’s “Traitor,” a crucial entry in the sprawling “New Jedi Order” series. “Traitor” stands out among the morass of SW fiction because it’s so different from all the others, eschewing straightforward storytelling for more nonlinear, challenging, and thought-provoking prose; nothing about it wrapped up into the typical nice, neat bundle by the end. And even though it remains Stover’s only entry in the post-“Return of the Jedi” Star Wars Expanded Universe, “Traitor” nonetheless irrevocably changed the tone of the NJO and continues to affect the current (albeit middling) “Legacy of the Force” series some five years later.
“Traitor” was also a big deal for Stover as an author, as it effectively put him on the sci-fi/fantasy literary map. Although his first novel, “Iron Dawn,” was published in 1997, “Heroes Die” is his only work still in print (more’s the pity).
“Heroes Die” is a heady brew of gut-clenching action, social and political commentary, and romance. Here's a description to make your head spin: The novel is a combination of William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, Terry Goodkind’s “Sword of Truth” series, and Robert Ludlum’s Bourne trilogy. It’s set in a not-too-distant future, presumably after some cataclysmic event has forever altered global society (keep in mind, this was written in 1995, pre-9/11). To get away from the horrors of daily life, where a good number of Earth’s population are little more than slaves, citizens turn to entertainment, and technology has advanced to the point where they can virtually live through created characters’ lives. Here’s the catch: What the characters go through isn’t make-believe. When they’re out on Adventure and get stabbed, they really do get stabbed. No stunt doubles, collapsing blades, and fake blood here.
The Actors’ Adventures occur on Overworld, a planet in an alternate universe that’s straight out of a medieval fantasy novel. Like Goodkind’s “Truth” series, this is a violent world ruled by an all-powerful godlike figure who, though ruthless as a Hitler, believes he’s doing the work of a god for the benefit of his people. And like Gibson’s use of “flipping” into a virtual realm, the Actors in Stover’s novel are actually physically transported to this Overworld and dropped into the middle of strenuous situations; while they engage in their Adventures, the folks back home see and feel everything as though they’re riding right behind the Actors’ eyes.
The fabulous main character is an Actor named Hari Michaelson, whose Overworld persona Caine is a legendary knife-wielding assassin in the mold of Jason Bourne. In “Heroes Die,” Stover pits Michaelson/Caine against the powers-that-be in both worlds; as he struggles to save his wife’s life from the sword-and-sorcery of Overworld, he must simultaneously navigate the politics of Earth and, somehow, try to not get dead on either side.
Don’t expect to gain any moral insight from “Heroes Die,” because Stover makes it quite clear in a Q&A included in the back of the most recent paperback edition that he believes morality is nothing more than a social construct, there is no God, yada, yada, yada (oh, and Republicans are the source of all evil in this country—what a shock). But his novel works on both the visceral and the intellectual level. In the way that Gibson predicted cyberspace and virtual reality 25 years ago, in “Heroes Die,” Stover effectively predicted how reality television would make the horrible misfortunes of a few entertaining for millions. This novel also hints at the astounding emergence of online role-playing games, where some participants seem to feel more comfortable in a simulated nether-world than in their own skin. The future of entertainment Stover paints here doesn’t really seem that far off, and that’s a disturbing notion.
As much as I loved this maelstrom of a novel, I can’t wholly endorse it to everyone because in his attempt to go through the looking glass, Stover uses a mix of first- and third-person narration that forces his readers to actually become the viewers that are so abhorrently portrayed in the book. The action is so intense and thrilling, you can see why millions would want to view it, even as you cringe away from it; Stover has studied several different forms of martial arts, so his depiction of hand-to-hand combat is spot-on brilliant (one fight actually brings to mind the astounding scene in the hotel room from “The Bourne Ultimatum”). “Heroes Die” is incredibly violent, and features a couple characters in particular that are so vile, it’s hard to read through their passages—I almost put this book down for good a few different times.
“Heroes Die” is most certainly NC-17. The brutality and degradation are similar to that of Goodkind, only in Goodkind’s world the darkness is always balanced by light and nobility; in Overworld, there are only dark and darker shades of black, where the best you can cling to is the anti-hero code Caine lives by.