Elite: The Dark Wheel by Robert Holdstock*


*We are delighted to replace the original blog post with this update, corrected by eyewitness and participant – the marvellous Malcolm Edwards, who is a LonCon Guest of Honour – to some of the events cited within. The first two people to correctly identify all of the corrections will win copies of the new Elite novels when they’re published in physical form in Autumn 2014.

The original Elite, released in 1984, was one of the reasons I became a fan of science fiction. The game itself had no storyline or characters, but it did have a fair bit
of worldbuilding: the game’s manual included a brief history of each of the types of spacecraft you could encounter and the starmap featured interesting (and often funny) descriptions of each planet and what could be found there. These gave the universe a sense of existing far beyond the primitive wireframe graphics of the game itself.

Something else that helped this feeling of immersion was that the game shipped with a novella. Entitled The Dark Wheel, this was the story of a young man who inherited a spaceship from his murdered father and set out to bring the killer to justice. He did this by doing the same things the player is expected to do in the game: learn how to trade, fight and, yes, dock with the setting’s notoriously lethal space stations. The novella even featured some clever nods to player tricks in the game, such as shooting down an incoming missile if you don’t have a countermeasures system. But, from the perspective of my six-year-old self, it was clever, well-written and imaginative.

The author of the novella was Robert Holdstock, who that same month published a full-length novel under the title of Mythago Wood. A dense exploration of an ancient woodland where myths become reality, the novel won both the World Fantasy Award and the BSFA Award the following year. A number of successful sequels and other books followed. Holdstock could be forgiven for forgetting about the video game tie-in novella (apparently the first one ever written) he wrote years earlier, but throughout his career he was happy to chat to readers about it and attended Elite fan events. A month and a half before he tragically passed away in 2009, he was at an Elite convention and made a speech about what the game meant to him. Shortly before that I had the pleasure of speaking to Robert about the game.

He talked about being intrigued by video games ever since taking part in an epic Meteoroids session with George R.R. Martin at the 1981 Milford SF Writers Conference.* He got to play the game when it was still in development, but co-creator David Braben put the game on a cheat mode so he could jump ahead to see the more advanced weapons and equipment from later in the game without putting dozens of hours into it first. This allowed him to put at least some of the feeling of the game into the book itself, helping the two feel more connected.

Despite the promise on the back of The Dark Wheel, the planned sequel was never written. When Elite‘s sequel, Frontier, was released in 1993 it was accompanied by a short story collection which, alas, Robert Holdstock did not contribute to. But Elite: Dangerous has a lot of fiction accompanying its upcoming release. As well as the three novels from Gollancz, Fantastic Books are publishing four novels and a short story collection. A pen-and-paper RPG is in the works. Five more self-published novels are in the offing. And if the game and the books are successful, no doubt we will be seeing a lot more. Thirty years after Robert Holdstock kicked things off, the Elite universe is now a fertile ground for science fiction stories and, with any luck, will shortly be inspiring another generation of SF fans and games.


You can find out more about Adam Whitehead  on Twitter and on his website The Wertzone.