Tuesday, April 12, 2011

This Is Not a Game - Walter Jon Williams

Busy, busy, busy this week. I haven't managed to write the review I intended to post today. Instead I'm moving an older one to keep you all occupied. I wrote this one in February 2009. It needed only a little bit of polish to eradicate the most glaring errors. I hope to read the sequel Deep State, which was published in February, sometime but it may be a while before I get around to it.

In the late 1920′s the Belgian surrealist painter Magritte worked on a series of images known as La trahison des images. One of these, a work called eci n’est pas une pipe is probably his best known work. The title of the work appears to be nonsense, the image clearly depicts a pipe, until you realize, and this is the artist’s point, that you are in fact looking at a painting, not a pipe. Or, to put it in more philosophical terms, he points out the difference between an object and a symbol (or image). I have no idea if this painting was actually an inspiration to Williams, one of the downsides of receiving advance reading copies of a book is that you don’t have the clever reviewers to figure these things out for you, but in a way it fits. Throughout the novel Williams let’s the reader wonder if you what you are seeing (or reading) is in what it appears to be. This is not a game. Or is it?

Williams doesn’t mention a specific year but this book has the feel of a near future story. He describes some gadgets that aren’t available to the general public yet, but seem to be just around the corner. At the opening of the book we meet Dagmar who is on her way to Bali for a well earned vacation. Her job is running games organized in part on the Internet and in part in the real word. Dagmar gives the players clues and puzzles that let the player follow the story she’s set out for them. Well timed releases on the Internet and the occasional live event held around the world keeps her audience enthralled.

After successfully completing her latest game with an event staged in India, she hops on a plane to Jakarta. When she arrives there she quickly finds out there will be no planes leaving Jakarta any time soon. The Indonesian currency has collapsed in record time, millions of people see their savings become worthless overnight. The military has closed off the capital and riots soon break out. The Chinese appear to bear the brunt of the rioting but the situation soon turns to all out plundering. Dagmar in the mean time, is caught in a luxurious hotel. Without means of escape, short of cash and with looters encroaching on the hotel grounds Dagmar and her multi-millionaire boss Charlie try to plan her escape from the besieged city. Professional assistance notwithstanding, Dagmar begins to realize the power of her gamer network may be the only way to get out of the city before things get really out of hand.

I guess you could say this novel is well timed. It depicts a number of financial disasters taking place in various places in the world. One of it’s messages I suppose, is that money is an idea. Or to put in in Magritte’s terms, look at a dollar and you see a symbol of wealth, not wealth itself. Somehow, I doubt this will cheer up the bankers who managed to help their business to the brink of ruin recently, but it is a good thought still. Dagmar certainly seems to see things that way. Money in large amounts is an abstraction to her. A feeling a lot of people will recognize as one billion-dollar rescue plan after another disappear into the craters left behind by dubious financial constructions collapsing. Apparently Williams doesn’t believe we’ll learn from this experience.

Throughout the novel, Williams makes the reader very aware that what is happening on the surface may not be what is going on at all. Like the novel the chapters are all titled “This is not…” Especially later in the book this creates slightly paranoid atmosphere that reflects the state of mind of the main character. As Dagmar discovers layer upon layer of seemingly unrelated events that are somehow related, the game and reality become increasingly hard to separate. For Dagmar it doesn’t matter all that much, she plays the game for all she’s worth and she plays it well.

With the story told entirely from Dagmar’s perspective, it is a more straightforward novel than some of the sprawling multiple point of view stories I’ve been reading lately. Williams sets a brisk pace, not bothering the reader with too much back story or technological detail. It makes This Is Not a Game is quite a fast and entertaining read. I would have liked to see social networks and online gaming a bit more widely accepted, Williams doesn’t quite manage to detach the phenomenon from geekdom. Given the current state of affairs, and the fact that is book is very well timed in other respects, I think it would be reasonable to expect greater acceptance in the near future.

If you enjoy a good (techno) thriller this book is as good as it gets. Events frequently outpace the main character keep her, and to an extend the reader, off balance. Williams captures the paranoia, desperations and frustration of the main character very well, without making her completely helpless. Dagmar is used to being in control of the game, when she eventually cuts the strings that move her the result in interesting, unexpected even. In short, I thought This Is Not a Game was a very entertaining read. Not bad at all for my first exposure to Williams’ work.

Book Details
Title: This Is Not a Game
Author: Walter Jon Williams
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 369
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-316-00315-5
First published: 2009

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