Review: Cybernetica by Rob Sanders

Posted by DarkChaplain at 1/19/2017
The Red Planet has fallen. The Dark Mechanicum must be stopped to ensure Terra's safety. An agent is despatched with a single goal: exterminate all life on Mars.

Soon after word reached Terra of Horus's nascent rebellion, Mars fell. Rogue elements within the Mechanicum priesthood, stirred by the Warmaster's promises of independence and prosperity, turned against the Imperium and forced the primarch Rogal Dorn to order an impenetrable blockade of the Red Planet. Now it has become clear that the corruption has spread too deep, and that more drastic measures must be taken if the Forge World Principal is to be reclaimed. Calling upon the expertise of those who witnessed the so-called 'Death of Innocence' firsthand, Lord Dorn and Malcador the Sigillite consider their final solution - the complete extermination of all life on Mars.
This is a review that I found surprisingly easy to write, so I figured I'd use it to get back into action here. Still sick, I'm afraid, but I'm getting back into the groove day by day. I wish this book had turned out better, however.

The Story:
"The Red Planet has fallen. The Dark Mechanicum must be stopped to ensure Terra's safety. An agent is despatched with a single goal: exterminate all life on Mars.

Soon after word reached Terra of Horus's nascent rebellion, Mars fell. Rogue elements within the Mechanicum priesthood, stirred by the Warmaster's promises of independence and prosperity, turned against the Imperium and forced the primarch Rogal Dorn to order an impenetrable blockade of the Red Planet. Now it has become clear that the corruption has spread too deep, and that more drastic measures must be taken if the Forge World Principal is to be reclaimed. Calling upon the expertise of those who witnessed the so-called 'Death of Innocence' firsthand, Lord Dorn and Malcador the Sigillite consider their final solution - the complete extermination of all life on Mars."

Disclaimer
I have read & reviewed this novella while being sick. It is at least possible that my view on the book is harsher as a result of outside factors.

The Review:
Cybernetica is one of the few Horus Heresy books that I felt were more of a chore to read than a pleasant experience. I did not enjoy it. I had to re-read sections over and over because they just wouldn't sink in, or I'd go back to re-read parts out of a feeling I missed something vital, especially after seeing praise for said sections online. But in the end I still feel unimpressed and dissatisfied with the story and its characters, and the big amount of action sequences.

I've mentioned the "battle-fatigue" problem somewhere before, though I can't remember which review it was. The term strikes me as important with Cybernetica too. It is full of action setpieces, some even pretty good, but the sheer volume of them compared to character development, interaction between cast members, and actual ongoings outside of he-strikes-I-strike moments is so mind-numbing to me, that I feel turned off from reading altogether if I can't get through the rest sooner rather than later. I build up an apathy towards the book and while that can get reverted if the book improves, Cybernetica never did. It left me cold.

My biggest complaint about the book is that it had so much promise to be something cool, exciting and with plenty of depth, yet chose not to be such. It had ample opportunity to be more than the sum of its parts, yet discarded these opportunities early on. When looking at the book, I can see many ways it could have gone differently in more fulfilling directions, yet reality is different.

Even looking at the cover art I see a massive missed opportunity. The diverse-Legion-Techmarines-doing-shit-on-Mars angle that the book outwardly promises with its Raven Guard, Ultramarine, Salamander and co lineup is compressed to barely two chapters. By the end of chapter two, the Raven Guard protagonist is on his own. The rest are goners, and never even got out of their tower or the hangar that is the stage for the first big (present-day) action setpiece. Yes, there's more action in flashbacks right off the start too. Either way, the idea of a dirty dozen infiltration mission on the Red Planet is discarded barely a quarter through the book, and that is where my enjoyment increasingly evaporated.

I liked the initial banter between the Techmarine initiates. They were representatives of their individual Chapters, with their own quirks and specialties. They argued, they assessed the situation, they decided to get out. They died. The book died with them. Instead of taking this entire angle of Legiones Astartes loyal to the Emperor over their Legions or the Omnissiah due to spending 30 years in training, which could have offered plenty of conflict between the group, have discussion of loyalties and their beliefs in how to purge Mars, Sanders scrapped it so quickly, it boggles my mind.

The Carrion, the Raven Guard protagonist, survives and reaches Terra. His struggles to get off Mars are handled off-page, between chapters. So is his recruitment to the Knights Errant. So is his own emotional development. It felt like there was too much slipping through the cracks at this point already that I found myself disconnected from the protagonist by chapter three of seven, the last of which he is not even in.

It didn't help that the only other character with a speaking role on his mission back on Mars ended up being a madman-heretek with what seemed like 5 lines throughout the rest of the story, one of which was "Tick, tock, tick, tock". Don't get me wrong, I liked Octal Bool's appearance in early flashbacks from his trial, and the idea behind him. But he was severely underused and his madness didn't allow for organic back and forth between him and the Carrion. His role made the Knight Errant feel even more isolated among his combat servitors and robot cohort.

I'm a reader who appreciates characters and their actions probably beyond everything else. Give me dialogue over swordblows any day. In that regard, Cybernetica is an utter failure. The showcasing of lumbering, emotionless machines doing their masters' bidding just doesn't appeal to me. It robbed the book of the type of content I enjoy most. But even then there would have been ways around it! The Tabula Myriad, the abominable AI construct that Octal Bool makes such a fuss over, could have offered a lot of conflict here. Instead, it cannot talk, and its influence is barely felt until the very end. It thinks and directs the other constructs but that's about it for the most part. It has enough impact on action scenes but barely any on the reader or the protagonists up until the climax. I almost forgot it was even there at times.

This is where I have to ask myself how this even happened. You got an actual artificial intelligence that came to the conclusion all the meat-things need to be purged because of their weakness and predicted, at least in part, a schism between humanity's factions. It even made plans and arrangements to achieve said purge and can influence machines around it. This is a setup brimming with potential for excitement and conflict and moral deliberations. It seems like a rich opportunity for any storyteller. And yet it takes a passive role, being a tool to achieve the mission instead of feeling like an integral part to it. Even the mad heretek worshipping it is sidelined for yet another fight against the Mechanicum's constructs.

The fights were technically good, and could have served a good dramatic purpose, but instead their volume throughout felt overbearing. With the book's original publishing timeframe, I have to wonder if it suffered from the infamous time in Black Library's life where Games Workshop proper exerted too much influence over the publishing arm. 2015 saw the peak of marketing brochure-like releases, with short stories presenting the release of the week in a super positive light and what not. I got a similar feeling here. Kastelan, Castellax, Vorax etc, the book highlights a lot of 2015's releases very prominently, to the point of annoyance. It would not surprise me in the least if this was a corporate mandate in line with other policy changes back then, rather than Rob's own vision that had been in the creative stages for a long time before, as evidenced by the name of the book being declared years earlier at events.
Either way, the product that ended up on the market read too much like an action piece than a moe introspective, exploratory epic of the Horus Heresy variety. That's what happens when you spew lightning at opponents or use magnet fists and put an Astartes into a giant Imperial Knight-sized mecha-body.

Despite all the missed opportunities, this is also the longest Horus Heresy novella so far, I believe. It is noticeably longer than Aurelian, the Corax novellas or other. Referring to the audiobook runtimes given by Black Library (since they don't give actual page numbers for their releases anymore), it compares closest to Rob Sanders' own The Honoured short novel for Betrayal at Calth, and is barely 10 minutes shorter than Sanders' Shadow of Ullanor for The Beast Arises. Yet it achieves so little that I thought was actually of consequence or gave a different perspective on the war with Mars, it has been one of the few books I end up thinking wasted my time.

The prose is, as often with Sanders, a bit heavy for my taste. Some people will love it, others will find it needlessly complex in places. He conjures up thick imagery, but it also requires you to glue yourself to the page to not miss a beat. I admit that this was difficult for me this time, due to being sick and my head buzzing with scrap code as it is. Maybe my lack of enjoyment is at least in part down to that.

I can definitely say that one stylistic trait of Sanders is not to my taste at all, though: He barely ever gives you breathing room within any given chapter of his books. Where in most books you'll come across scene breaks, blank lines that invite a short break, or allow you to close the book at and get off your train, Sanders writes non-stop. You either finish a chapter or re-read sections just to get back to where you left off. This is the primary factor that has so far discouraged me from reading his Atlas Infernal, even though it has been sitting on my shelf since it released. If I have to get through about 40 pages without breaks just to get out of the prologue, my enthusiasm dwindles. Cybernetica is similar to that, and as a result felt exhausting to read.

Cybernetica lost me. Between the lack of more esoteric discussion, the battles that overstayed their welcome, the weird, out-of-character-despite-dark-code boss waiting at the end, the lack of poignant dialogue, the mission objective we all know from the start will not be achieved no matter what, and the disconnect from the characters, all presented in a relentless avalanche, this has to be one of my least favorite books in the entire Horus Heresy series. It didn't stimulate, it exhausted me.

Cybernetica on Goodreads

About the Author

I'm known as DarkChaplain across the internet, and call myself a passionate gamer and book enthusiast. I have been blogging mostly about games for a couple of years, but finally found my way to reviewing a different medium: Books. Honestly, I prefer that job so far.
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain


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