The Universal Prey
The Universal Prey. Jefferson P. Swycaffer
Original Publication: 1985
Current Availability: Print (used)
Editor’s Note: This review originally appeared on RPG.Net in September of 2009, and in the November 2011 issue of the downloadable magazine and reprinted here with the author’s permission.
Author’s Note: I think that one of the best ways to prepare yourself to run a game is to immerse yourself in its fiction, and thus get a real sense of its milieu. Thus, this series of reviews, which looks at some of the fiction that influenced Traveller, was influenced by Traveller, or is actually set in the Traveller universe.
Among the Traveller-influenced books were seven by Jefferson P. Swycaffer that were published in the 1980s. Though these books didn't take place in the Traveller universe, the physics, technology, and feeling of the stories were all straight Traveller.
This tenth review covers The Universal Prey, also the third of Swycaffer’s books set in the Concordat of Archive.
About the Story
In his books, Swycaffer seems to enjoy spinning off a minor character from one book as the protagonist of the next, thus clearly linking his stories into a coherent universe, but at the same time making each standalone and fairly unique.
The Universal Prey is about an assassin names James Tyler, who appeared somewhat briefly in the previous book, Become the Hunter. Herein, we learn that Tyler reports to the mysterious Black Book, which assigns him assassinations of importance to the Concordat.
On a balkanized planet that's recently been shaken by nuclear war, Tyler is ordered to kill the man who started that war. But, Tyler’s growing conscience and the growing attention of higher-ups in the Concordat threaten to make the mission more dangerous than ever.
Genre & Style
Swycaffer keeps shifting his genre from book to book. Though I continue to have some issues with his craftsmanship (which I’ll return to later), I respect his willingness to constantly plunge into new arenas, and I think it strengthened a series that was meant to describe a huge, Traveller-sized universe.
Herein Swycaffer offers up a moralistic espionage book of the sort you might find in the 1970s, where the spies aren’t necessarily the good guys, even when working for the government. It’s the conspiracy-soaked world view that originated into the 1960s, made large here. It reminds me the most of Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius books which had a similar theming (though The Universal Prey is much more normative than Moorcock’s tetralogy, not that that’s saying much).
Generally, I think that Swycaffer’s writing style continues to improve from book to book. Here his characters are stronger and more often their emotions seem real. The plot is just a bit more fully realized as well.
However, there are a lot nuisances that keep from loving the book. First of all, a lot of the emotional undercurrent of the book has to do with reassessing one’s life and being one’s own worst enemy. It feels like a lot of the “new world” SF books from the period and earlier—which I never liked. We’ll call that a personal preference.
I’m also not fond of the entirely unrealistic, fall-in-love-from-first-sight plot that repeats from Become the Hunted and if anything is considerably worse here. That I’ll call not just a personal preference, but a viewpoint of the world that can only strike falsely.
Though characterization has improved, sometimes characters still act in ways that seem inscrutable to the reader.
Finally, Swycaffer’s insistence of suddenly involving the leaders of the Concordat halfway through the book is really frustrating. It knocks me straight out of the book (here thanks to a 20-30 page digression, much like in the previous volume), and it also hurts my disbelief because of the way that it implies that the rulers of a humongous Empire involve themselves intimately in the minutia of individuals worlds.
Generally, I thought this book deeper and better polished than the last volume. I still give it a “3” out of “5” for both Style and Substance, but those ratings are both edging toward the high side of that scale.
Applicability to Mongoose Traveller
Like Become the Hunted, this is a pretty small story, about one man’s triumphs and trials on a single planet. Unlike Become the Hunted, I think it’s got some topics of interest to Traveller GMs.
First up is the nice depiction of a balkanized world—and how it interacts with the Concordat as a whole. It’s believable and thought-provoking.
Connected is the issue of planetary independence versus galactic rulership. The Concordat seems to truly control its planets—in a way that the Imperium of the Traveller Universe doesn’t. However this book offers up an exception for the Concordat—a world that’s been given its own rulership. The fights that occur when the planet has proved itself unable to govern itself are exactly the sort of fights that could occur over a balkanized world in the Original Traveller Universe.
Finally, though The Universal Prey deals with the Concordat’s Black Book assassination program somewhat unrealistically (when the Naval Commander who’s at the top of the chain of command involving the Black Book saying she’s “shocked, shocked” to find assassinations going on), the general concept is an interesting one. Could the Imperium have such a program? If so, who would know about it?
Don’t expect to see the trademark physics or technology of Traveller to be forefront in The Universal Prey, but do expect to get an interesting look at how the governments of a planet and the Concordat/Imperium could interrelate. If that sounds like an inspiring topic, you should consider picking the book up.
The Universal Prey is an average book—with high-points and faults alike—that takes a good look at how the government of an individual world can work within the purview of an interstellar government.