The Dark Wheel by Robert Holdstock

This novella, whose publication dates back to the mid-1980s, is not only hard to find now, but was even then, given that it never graced the shelves of any bookstore. Instead, it would have been found in computer game shops. The Dark Wheel is a companion story to one of the greatest videogame experiences ever.

Elite was a game of space trading and combat set in a galaxy full of populated planets. We can all say ho-hum to that statement now, in today’s saturated market, but when Elite first emerged, there had been nothing like it before. For the first time, when you sat in front of your rubber-keyed ZX Spectrum, you felt like you were not just playing a game but immersed in a futuristic fantasy life. You’d start off in a poorly equipped Cobra Mark III spacecraft with a few hundred credits at your disposal to buy some materials from one planet, which you would hopefully carry to another world and sell for profit – that is, if you could avoid the pirate ships, who were always eager to attack you and steal your cargo. Alternatively, you could adopt a pirate lifestyle for yourself, shooting down innocent traders and scooping up their jettisoned cargo – that is, if you didn’t mind getting “fugitive” status, and the cops on your tail in their Viper ships. Elite had total non-linear gameplay; you had a thousand routes to success or failure, and all in a mere 48 kilobytes of memory. Ah, those were the days!

The Dark Wheel, which shipped with every copy of Elite, certainly added an extra dimension to the game. What the old 8-bit computers lacked in graphical power was more than made up for by Holdstock’s powerful storytelling. The novel perfectly captures the mythology of the game and expands upon it, fleshing out traders’ lifestyles, as they buy and sell and engage in combat. The core of the story revolves around a young trader, Alex Ryder, who loses his father at the hands of a pirate ship, and is determined to avenge him. Along the way he discovers that his father was more than just an ordinary trader; he belonged to a secret society of elite combateers known as The Dark Wheel.

The novella gets a little bogged down in detail at times, telling us all about docking procedures, fuel scoops, pulse lasers, beam lasers, etc. Describing the things that you find in the game made playing the game all the better, of course, but thinking of The Dark Wheel as a stand-alone novella, it doesn’t really enhance the story itself. No harm done, though.

If you’re interested in reading this, you could get lucky chasing down a copy of Elite on eBay. I was able to find an online version of the novella on the net using a search engine.

The Dark Wheel is an entertaining tale, set in a very interesting and original universe. Shame it’s the only one.

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