Emergence: Dave vs. the Monsters (hereafter called ‘Emergence’) is the first in a series of action-packed urban fantasy novels by John Birmingham. In it, our protagonist Dave, suddenly finds himself some sort of monster-slaying magic-weapon-wielding superhero, as strange creatures attack from below the Earth. While this book was in a great deal of danger of just being Duke Nukem by another name, I was pleasantly surprised to have quite enjoyed the execution of the concept. Still not the deepest tale in the library, but it was fun, rompy, and had enough meat to it to interest me.
“Monsters,” said Vince Martinelli. “There are monsters on the rig, Dave.”
Dave Hooper has a hangover from hell, a horrible ex-wife, and the fangs of the IRS deep in his side. The last thing he needs is an explosion at work. A real explosion. On his off-shore oil rig.
But this is no accident, and despite the news reports, Dave knows that terrorists aren’t to blame. He knows because he killed one of the things responsible.
When he wakes up in a hospital bed guarded by Navy SEALs, he realizes this is more than just a bad acid trip. Yeah, Dave’s had a few. This trip is way weirder.
Killing a seven-foot-tall, tattooed demon has transformed the overweight, balding safety manager into something else entirely. A foul-mouthed, beer-loving monster slayer, and humanity’s least worthy Champion.
Sometimes you can’t help but judge a book by its cover, or at least its title, and I freely admit, I put off looking at this book because of that. Between ‘Dave vs. the Monsters’ and the idea that Dave himself is basically a pretty stereotypical gross dude, this seemed far removed from my wheelhouse. Eventually though, I did get around to reading it, and was pleasantly surprised. Yes, he’s still a pretty crummy guy (having spent his last big bonus actually on hookers and blow, and not just the proverbial hookers and blow) and his character never really became one I could identify with, but Birmingham manages to fill in around him with some rather interesting bits. As superhero creation stories go, ‘managed to kill a big ugly’ was pretty awesome. As well, the whole process of his being tested to figure out just what he was capable of was a lot of fun to read, and would certainly make for a great montage in an eventual movie.
I think what ended up grabbing me the most was the aforementioned monsters. I think I would have been pretty disappointed if they’d been something as boring as aliens. Instead we get this great establishing of this ancient race that used to basically farm humans as food, which have been trapped deep beneath the Earth for who knows how long. Now with an avenue to the surface, we get this sort of sense of all hell being about to break loose (but without the implication that they’re actually coming from hell, which was nice). Another plus for me was the surprisingly rational handling of how Dave’s super powers would work. He has incredible strength, speed, resilience, and these powers are actually being fuelled by Dave’s body. That means he needs to eat, and eat, and eat, and when he doesn’t, it’s bad times. This little touch of what I guess I’ll call -realism- into what could easily have just been ‘so he has superpowers now’ actually did a lot to allay my worries that this was going to be all schlock.
It is super tropey I’ve found, especially in science fiction, to have the thing humans do that nobody else does is be super violent stubborn badasses. I’ve lost track of the number of novels I’ve read where aliens come to Earth with no or outdated information about our capabilities, and modern humans kick their ass in spite of not being space-faring yet. Or where we get uplifted into some sort of planetary alliance because everybody else has evolved to being peaceful and some threat means they need fighters. It sort of backhandedly insults humanity that the best we can do is stay violent and warmongering. What we get in Emergence is almost an inversion of this. It feels better that we’re the vicious warmongering badass this time around, because the attackers used to use us as farm animals. Now that it’s suddenly a reverse revenge plot, you can cheer for the fact that this time we’re actually scary. There’s a very strong sense of ‘Come screw with us again? We’re ready for you this time!’ that makes this rise above the tropey roots.
There are already two more novels in this series, so I expect things to escalate rather quickly into full blown army vs army battles, and it will be interesting to see how Birmingham makes the transition to that from very up-close and gritty fighting happening in Emergence. I’m also interested to see whether Dave develops into any kind of better person, and grow into his new hero shoes, or whether we’re going to see a push to keep him all gritty and grr and anti-hero so we can still picture the permanent 5-o-clock shadow, and handy nearby 6-pack of beer for the rest of the series. At this point I’m surprisingly unsure which one I might enjoy more. On the one hand, we really don’t need any more Duke Nukem wannabes, but on the other hand, having already established his character throughout some pretty trying stuff, the kind of things that might actually make you fundamentally change your outlook on life and affect your priorities, he’s stayed pretty much how he is, so now it wouldn’t be true to his character. Ah well, one way or the other, a very big guy is going to smash a very great number of monsters in the face.
Dan received an Advanced Review Copy of this book from Del Ray via NetGalley