I bought this paperback from a secondhand bookstore that also sells knives, swords, and synthetic cannabis. Actually it’s more of a knives, swords, and synthetic cannabis store that also sells books as the books part is new. Inside books are piled all over the shelves and floors in complete disarray except for a few authors, Clive Cussler, Stephen King, Matthew Reilly, who have their own dedicated sections. The Vang: The Military Form by Christopher Rowley was $1 from a stolen shopping cart parked in front of the store.
Humankind has spread across the galaxy and settled on numerous alien worlds. Illegally prospecting, asteroid miners disturb an alien intelligence that has been floating in deep space like an unexploded armament from an ancient war for half a billion years. Classic asteroid miner move. The alien, a Vang ‘Military Form’, quickly gets about killing or transforming those on board the mining vessel, and the fight gets drawn to the nearby human colony of Saskatch. The book is second in a series but Rowley’s story is totally self contained. It wasn’t until I Googled the book after reading that I realised a few oblique references to the events of the first novel were anything more than world-building.
The Vang are unashamedly inspired by the xenomorphs of the Alien film series. In several ways though, they actually come across as considerably more horrific. For a start, the rape allegory of the facehugger / chestburster lifecycle in the Alien movies is a lot less allegorical with the Vang. The way they don’t just use human bodies to breed but actively force them to grow into new forms more useful to their cause, whether that’s as soldiers or breeding farms, is grotesque, especially when at least one character is left trapped inside his own mind to see what the Vang is doing to his body and the body of his wife.
But the worst part to me was that the Military Form is much more intelligent than the animalistic xenomorphs and we see large sections of the story through the creature’s eyes. It comes across like an intelligent soldier ant. Its desires, or biological imperatives, and the utterly disturbing ways it goes about meeting them are still understable and ultimately pragmatic. The Military Form performs acts of extreme sadism without the ability to feel sadistic, or know guilt or anything approaching remorse, morality, or any other human feeling. Rowley forces us to empathise with a creature that itself is totally incapable of empathy.
We spend a lot of time on Saskwatch before the Military Form ever reaches the planet. The colony is in the grips of a drug crisis thanks to the locally produced substance, TA 45, a kind of potent LSD that gives the user a lucid dreaming high mixed with feelings of extreme pleasure. Weirdy, apart from being extremely addictive to the point, it’s suggested, that users want to do little else except take more of the drug, there appear to be no real negative effects to TA 45. The drug seems to be illegal just as a matter of course, although the colony is developing a tourism industry based solely on off-worlders who want to sample the drug and most of the planet’s authorities are in on it. The TA 45 trade is realised in surprising detail, and brutality, however, along with a sting operation by a few good cops working around their superiors to bring down some of the key figures. I was disappointed when the sting and standoff subplot petered out without a real conclusion thanks to the apocalyptic threat of the Vang arriving planetside.
Also taking place on Saskwatch is a bunch of nature documentarians chasing an elusive flying crustacean and instead coming across the near-mythical Bulmunk. A kind of Saskwatch Sasquatch, the Bulmunk is a bigfoot-esque legendary monster that has rarely been seen since the earliest days of colonisation and comes with a range of psychic abilities. The Bulmunk was the only element of The Vang: The Military Form I really disliked. Flicking back through the pages, I was surprised to see the Bulmunk made its first appearance a lot earlier than I initially thought because it just seems to have so little bearing on the overarching story. Really the only plot purpose it seems to serve, without getting into the book’s climax, is to make up for the fact the survivors of the aforementioned asteroid mining operation seem weirdly unconcerned they have clearly been followed to Saskwatch by a lethal alien presence, and are more concerned with keeping up a cover story that seems totally unnecessary.
Once the Military Form arrives on Saskwatch, Rowley kicks into another gear. It was fascinating to see a kind of standard invasion / assimilation plot laid out like a military campaign from the alien’s side. Vastly outmanned and outgunned, the Military Form quickly sets about taking over the colony with ruthless and terrifying efficiency with scarily real tactics for realistic obstacles in its path. It is here where we really hate the thought of the Military Form succeeding but will it to find solutions anyway, and feel its frustrations at setbacks especially when faced with the capricious and aristocratic Higher Form.
Described as an ‘omniparasite’, the Vang, given time, is apparently capable of producing a whole ecosystem, and whole society beginning with a single individual, including leaders, soldiers, worker drones, a court of advisors, and a kind of harem. The Higher Form, a hive leader that the Military Form is compelled to give a physical body and then follow orders from, ends up being more of a hindrance to the Military Form than the colony’s humans. More concerned with eating and screwing its harem of ‘holluschicks’, the Higher Form comes off as a self-obsessed civilian politician giving orders to the hardened military general of the Military Form on military matters.
Unfortunately, the ending comes a bit abruptly. It’s one of those situations where you’ve only got a few pages left to go, you’re wondering how this is going to wrap up in that time, and it feels like the book just runs out of room. But some really cracking writing and a great story completely on its own.