25 December 2015

Book Review - The Combat Codes (Alexander Darwin)

Short Review: Alexander Darwin, who holds a brown belt in jiu jitsu, has created a world where MMA is the main tool for diplomacy. Competently written with an engaging plot, Darwin weaves BJJ together with cyberpunk. If you liked The Hunger Games and Harry Potter but thought they didn't have enough punching and grappling, then this may be the book for you.

Full Review: For as long as I can remember, I have loved fantasy and sci-fi. Like many English Lit graduates, I've also had a half-written book in a drawer (or rather, a succession of folders on several generations of PC) for ages. So when I was contacted via r/bjj by Alexander Darwin about his BJJ sci-fi novel, the prospect was intriguing. The first book I heard of which combined sci-fi and BJJ was something set in 'Jenarium' by a Gracie Academy affiliated author in Australia, advertised on the Gracie Academy website back in 2011. I don't know if much ever came of that: searching for it now, lots of stuff about a concept album comes up, but nothing much on a book (although the guy is still writing, apparently).

Given that BJJ is about rolling around in pyjamas, it isn't an immediately obvious fit with the world of spaceships and phasers. There was that episode where Kirk got his judo on, along with the weirdly tai-chi inspired dance Worf occasionally did in the holodeck (the writers dropped the ball on that one: I am convinced there is no chance Klingons would really do tai-chi, they'd be all about the muay thai and wrestling), but mostly if you're going to fight in sci-fi, you're going to do it with lasers. Or at least a lightsaber.

You therefore need a conceit to make unarmed combat work. Darwin has come up with the idea of nations settling their disputes with MMA, reminding me simultaneously of my old favourite Battle Circle (at least until I re-read that as an adult and realised Piers Anthony had some weird ideas about children when he was writing that) and much more recently, The Hunger Games. There are also echoes of another long-standing favourite of mine, The Verdant Passage from the sadly neglected Dark Sun universe (which also produced two of my favourite old school RPGs).

Darwin is pretty good on fight scenes, aiming them squarely at aficionados, but sufficiently articulate that your aunt who keeps asking you "how's the karate going?" can get the gist too. For example, "Capitalizing on bottom position, [he] grabbed [his opponent's] elbow and dragged the limp arm across his body, using the leverage to pull himself up and around onto his opponent's back." It can be quite bloody sometimes (imagine a world where "knock out, submission or death!" wasn't just early UFC marketing hype), but no more than the young adult fiction that has conquered the cinema in recent years. There are lots of made-up words, which again is par for the course in sci-fi and fantasy. Darwin gets the balance right, fleshing out his invented universe without getting into Moorcock realms of laughably silly nomenclature ("the tower of B'aal'nezbett" still makes me laugh).

Yet I did find some of the terminology jarring. That's not because Darwin was looking through his prog rock thesaurus, but due to borrowing from the 'real world' of BJJ and judo. For example, mata leão, omoplata and kata guruma. Later on, there's a chapter introduction which features five judo throws in quick succession: like 'omoplata', 'sasae tsurikomi ashi' is a very specific term. The Combat Codes even features a whole arena of people shouting 'Osssuu!' Just when you thought you'd left those guys behind at the Carlson Gracie Academy... ;p

You could argue that might fit if this was a 'future earth' scenario, as in many sci-fi books (I won't name them, just in case of spoilers). Or alternatively, if we're imagining that this is a translation from some indecipherable sci-fi language, with Darwin acting as the reader's babel fish. Other BJJ elements slotted in more comfortably for me, like the way Darwin includes rashguards and spats as a 'second skin'. Rashguards have always felt sci-fi anyway (the space faring crew of the USS Enterprise are all basically wearing them, after all), so I can accept the idea that futuristic athletes might use them as training gear. The gi is harder to swallow in that setting, but Darwin makes a good stab at backing up their existence.

Fellow BJJ and MMA fans will notice there are plenty of in-jokes to be found in The Combat Codes too. A certain Jos Danahar crops up as having a "master grasp of strategy", there's tough striker Mack Hunt, or you could head to Saulo's Circle. There's a line that could have come right off Ryan Hall's DVD on the triangle, giving some technical tips. Darwin even manages to discuss some hot topics in BJJ today within the context of his book, particularly the prevalence of performing enhancing drugs in our sport. Generally The Combat Codes wears its cyberpunk aspects lightly, but there's enough gadgetry and the like in there to keep us sci-fi fans happy.

In terms of female characters, I'm not sure if this book would pass the Bechdel test (though I didn't check for it), but there is at least one strong female protagonist who has a significant impact on the plot. There may also be more in future continuations of the story: The Combat Codes is book one of presumably an intended trilogy. I'll be interested to see where Darwin takes the story and if he's able to expand the scope. Writing something the length of a novel that can hold a reader's attention is hard enough, let alone basing it believably around BJJ: Darwin manages both. If you enjoy BJJ and dystopian sci-fi, then you're likely to enjoy this too.

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