Rockman: The Beginning by Mark Pickvet (book review).

‘Rockman’ subtitled ‘The Beginning’ is a post-apocalypse fantasy novel by Mark Pickvet. This author seems to have published quite a few books but the ‘Rockman’ series seems to be his only fiction. In addition, Pickvet has published several volumes being guides to collecting glassware and such. Unfortunately, the Port Town Publishing website is no longer reachable and this reviewer assumes they were a small press arrangement.

The titular character Rockman is one of about ten main characters around whom the story is told. The background to the story is creative but rarely well thought out. It posits that the world is heading towards an extinction level disaster. The numerate causes seem to include over-population, radiation release from weapons and collapse of the environment and atmosphere. All of which is plausible enough. An unidentified but western seeming nation performs an experiment to address the problem.

This experiment would give the nation control of the winds, waters, tectonics and maybe more to try and reverse the damage although the actual mechanisms are never explained. Another part of the experiment involved the transferral of human consciousness into android bodies. The actual motivation for this is never given. The pilot scheme involved the brilliant lady named Ariel thought up the technique, a security chief named John Cavanaugh and Rocky Jones whose past is obscure but he spent some time as an educator.

Ariel’s mind was transferred into an android body about five and a half feet tall but with physical strength and durability way beyond the human norm. John Cavanaugh was transferred into a military-type android with built in weapons and Rocky becomes Rockman when transferred into an improbable enormous android body made of rock. Of these three, Rockman is by far the largest, strongest and durable.

There is a fourth character named Joe Knight who was passed over for transference due to his basic personality flaws most easily described as a rather intelligent but psychotic bully. However, Joe being an integral engineer in the project arranges for all the other project scientists in the complex to be killed via poison gas and fixes his own transfer into an even more improbable android horse and rider also made of stone. Unfortunately, these actions cause the experiment to fail spectacularly and the environmental collapse runs amok.

As the tornadoes rage, Rockman protects Ariel and John as best he can. Unfortunately, when they awake following the experiment only Ariel retains all of her memories and personality. Rockman retains some fleeting memories and his basic pacifist personality and John loses most of his intelligence and becomes an easily manipulated bully with no memories. Joe Knight loses his entire mind except the psychotic joy in killing and becomes the terrifyingly lethal Dark Rider.

Most of the story revolves around small bands of humans who have devolved socially to a late stone age technology set in the ruins of a more advanced society. The band, being looked after by Ariel, has noticeably more technology given her memories and abilities but other bands still live in caves. Given the high level of radiation in the environment and the passage of time various strands of humanity have mutated and evolved into new forms resembling typical fantasy tropes.

Pickvet populates his world with trolls, elves and dwarves (no dwarrow here). The trolls are huge, strong and tough but rather stupid. They keep to themselves and only occasionally hunt humans. The elves and dwarves live on distant separate islands and part of the story deals with their first meeting. The actual geography of the planet after the disaster is such that most of the world is covered with seas. Most of the action takes place on the one central continent. Rockman inhabits an island about 10 miles off the coast and the islands of the elves and dwarves are far enough away that at the start of the story no-one on the continent is aware of them or are they aware of the main continent.

Throw into this mix some evolved lizards who are now sentient dragons and finally incorporeal aliens visiting from a vastly more advanced interstellar race now in severe decline. It is easy to see that Pickvet’s setting is a diverse mix of all the most stereotyped fantasy inhabitants of the past eighty years. This does lend vibrancy to the setting but feels as if it stretches the suspension of disbelief rather far.

Pickvet has a habit of writing a quotation at the beginning of each chapter. These usually meditate on the nature of good versus evil and human nature. When these are maybe a line or two from Sun Tze, they are quite enlightening and not too intrusive, but often they are a whole page or more by the likes of John Locke, Baltasar Gracian or Plato. I find this breaks the narrative too strongly between chapters and interrupts the reader too much. No doubt all of the quotations are linked to Pickvet’s overall theme for the books and may demonstrate the author’s depth of reading and education but, unfortunately, it also comes across as rather pretentious.

Annoyingly, I found a few grammatical errors of the elementary kind such as usage of `there’ for `their’ and so on. Very occasionally, there are spelling mistakes but these are few and far between but do bespeak a lack of professional editing. Assuming that Port Town Publishing were indeed small press it is a shame they could not be a little more professional.

Initially, Pickvet presents chapters out of chronological order. This seems to be so that Pickvet can establish the characters as they are for the majority of the story before giving the back story of how they got that way. This is confusing as most of the characters all start off in independent stories which are not easily related at the start. This all means that this first volume is actually quite difficult to read and confused this reviewer at least once in trying to fit it all together.

This is a shame as buried beneath all this obfuscation is a fairly entertaining and fun story. It focuses more on the human bands with the android characters occasionally coming into it at pivotal moments. By the end of the book, I was really quite enjoying the tale of Drake, who is a human boy captured by a warlord-type character early on in the novel who kills his parents. Drake grows up a slave and becomes enormously strong before striking out on his own while burning for revenge for his parents.

Drake tends to feature more than other characters and is the more active protagonist. Others include Tam, who is a girl from a different band of humans who becomes an accomplished woman hunter, and Silverleaf who is an elven prince who gets lost at sea. Unfortunately, by the end of the book neither Tam nor Silverleaf have joined the main storyline with the latter in particular left floating on a makeshift raft after being shipwrecked.

It feels rather like Pickvet wrote one book and the whole thing was split into three volumes not by narrative but simply by page count. This would account for the disparate storylines that just seem to stop without resolution at the end.

Nonetheless, by the end of the book, the reader can develop fondness for the characters whose stories are presumably picked up in the second book, ‘Rockman: The Battle’. There is a climax to the main story which resolves itself with some satisfaction as Rockman himself is engaged to defeat some stupid but cowardly and power hungry leaders of another band of humans. This provides at least a logical ending point for that story and is the only narrative break that I can find.

Following this, I am quite enthusiastic to find how what happens with Drake, Ariel and Rockman in the second volume. It feels as if the reader having put up with all the confusion, craziness and intrusive quotations in the first half can settle down to a fun fantasy story in a vibrant and different setting for the second half. Can I recommend ‘Rockman: The Beginning’? Yes but only just as there are surely easier approached fantasy novels out there in prospective fiction land. But Pickvet does have ideas that feel creative and off the wall next to most. I look forward to the second volume.

Dave Corby

October 2021

(pub: Port Town Publishing, 2004. 189 page enlarged paperback. Price: £10.95 (US) – now out of print but still out there. ISBN: 1-59466-021-2)

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