Walter Jon Williams – This Is Not A Game

This Is Not A Game coverIn the near future, ARGs (Alternate Reality Games) get big. Some – such as those produced by Dagmar, lead writer and planner for Great Big Idea and fondly nicknamed “the puppetmaster” – are so big that they are played by hundreds of thousands of people across the world. As the book opens she is in Jakarta for the climax of one such game. She is trapped when Indonesia’s currency abruptly collapses; the government soon follows leading to widespread civil disorder.

Dagmar’s story is at the heart of this novel but is also interwoven with the tales of her college acquaintances, friends who bonded over pen and paper role-playing games. Foremost among them is Charlie, a self-made billionaire who funds Great Big Idea. The first act describes Dagmar’s escape from Jakarta, a story in which Charlie’s limitless funds and a professional mercenary group are pitted against the contacts and ingenuity of Great Big Idea’s thousands of players. It’s a tense thriller with a well-envisioned setting, juxtaposing the precarious luxury of the Royal Jakarta Hotel with the poverty and violence outside. The hotel soon becomes a prison and Dagmar is forced to choose whether she should follow the instructions of a military professional, or put her life in the hands of individuals who may believe her plight is only a game.

The book has an interesting premise and it’s pleasing to see a thriller engaging with relatively new technologies and concepts like ARGs, social networking and cloudsourced knowledge. This also represents its Achille’s Heel: technology enthusiasts and players of ARGs may not find some aspects of Williams’s novel wholly convincing, exacerbated by the fact the novel is self-consciously imprecise about when it is set. For example, the first chapter describes laptop “turbines” which supply power and extend battery life; this sits anachronistically alongside a custom-made PDA that sounds less impressive than the latest iPhone.

Similarly the design of the ARG that is entwined with the novel’s other narratives feels dated and claustrophobic. Aspects of this game, supposedly played by hundreds of thousands, operate on a first come, first served basis. Thus only one player gets to participate, under the assumption that they will then share what they have learned with other players. It’s understandable that the game design is structured this way in order to work within the book, but it doesn’t convince as a game that would be played by more than a few hundred devotees. Williams does attempt to justify this by stating that many of the ‘players’ are observers rather than active participants, but compared to ARG projects like Superstruct the fictional game design feels lacking in imagination.

This Is Not A Game is a novel that is somewhat let down by its lack of intimate familiarity with the concepts that underpin it and this will be obvious to readers who are drawn to it by way of these concepts. However, it remains a highly entertaining speculative thriller that attempts to engage with the modern world, rather than ignoring the aspects of it that are inconvenient to plotting.

[This review originally published in Vector #264, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. This version of the review was edited by Martin Lewis.]

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