Orbit, 2009, 369 pages, C$27.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-316-00315-5
The first thing I like about Walter Jon Williams’ This Is Not a Game is the title: Direct, dramatic and as blunt as it’s possible to be. The cover of the US hardcover edition appropriately displays it in big bold letters taking up most of the available space. It’s a clue as to the nature of the story in more ways than one, especially in flagging how contemporary the novel is meant to be: In Science Fiction history, “This is not a Game” has sometimes been a Hugo-winning third-act plot twist. It’s also a title that alludes to the recent wave of stories reflecting on the ever-shifting nature of reality at a time where it’s increasingly augmented with other sources of information. Charles Stross, with Halting State, made quite a splash by looking at the boundaries between life and play and This is Not a Game makes use of similar ideas, albeit with a very different focus.
But outside the written SF community, the title is a fundamental credo for another interest group: In the field of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), “This is Not a Game” is a design aesthetic that differentiates this burgeoning type of entertainment from other types of play: Designers of ARGs seek to present an experience to the player that spans the narrow confines of traditional games. ARGs ask players to scour the web, make phone calls, investigate in person, solve clues and piece together very different pieces of information. Already almost ten years old, ARGs are a particularly vivid reminder of the blurring distinction between pursuits we’ve been conditioned to consider separate.
Walter Jon Williams isn’t a stranger to either SF or ARGs: His decades-old SF track record is distinguished, and he has been involved in creating ARGs since 2005, when he collaborated on “Last Call Poker” for market leader 42 Entertainment. In his newest novel, we get not only a gripping thriller set five minutes in the future, but a look behind the scenes of an ARG, as the puppetmasters writing the game have to deal with an alternate reality with no fourth wall.
But there’s a bit more at stake than a look at games that bring together thousands of people in a global clue-hunt: As This Is Not a Game begins, our ARG-creating protagonist Dagmar Shaw sees her holidays in Indonesia become a catastrophe as the country is shut down and riots break around her hotel. Engineering her rescue away from this mess ends up being a problem that not even a well-financed Israeli security contractor can solve: In the end, Dagnar finds greater value in tapping the game-playing community and crowd-sourcing her own safety to the diverse talents of perfect strangers scattered around the globe.
And that’s just the first act, because once she’s back stateside, Dagmar’s life soon turns into a nightmare when friends are acquaintances are murdered. It’s clear to her that this is not a game-related development, but the players of her ongoing ARG aren’t so sure. When the police admit that the investigation may tax even their capabilities, Dagmar sees another opportunity to let the group mind of her plays chew on the evidence. But as she eventually discovers, it’s hard to get away from the game once it takes over…
Williams has often challenged genre boundaries, and this latest book marks a return to high-end thrillers just a step away from near-future SF. This is Not a Game inhabits the same ultra-contemporary territory as William Gibson’s Spook Country, albeit with a far more visible plot. Given this, it’s unfortunate but forgivable that it’s that plot that ends up being the novel’s weakest link: While the look at the inner workings of ARGs is fascinating and the thriller makes good use of the mirrored halls offered by games that voluntarily don’t take place in an identifiable sandbox, Williams isn’t as successful at creating a sustained sense of suspense: There aren’t enough characters to pose a serious mystery, and the last stretch of the novel is annoyingly linear in how Dagmar turns the tables on the guilty party. A lot of loose ends remain, but the promise of a sequel (which you wouldn’t guess from the jacket copy) may end up making use of a bunch of those. There are also a few technical bugs for nit-pickers. (Regarding P.336: HTML is not case-sensitive; XHTML is supposed to be. Web servers very well have to be.)
Not that it matters all that much: This is Not a Game is a more-than-honorary member of the SF genre partly because it’s a novel of demonstration. It has a few great ideas and runs us through them. The opening sequence in Indonesia can’t be equalled, but the rest of the novel remains an intriguing thought experiment, a thriller played with Science Fiction set-pieces that would have boggled minds even a decade ago. There’s even some meta-commentary on the SF writers’ community and a few nods in store for SF fans with sharp eyes. The prose is a pleasure to read, and the flavour of the novel is definitely of the times: This is Not a Game couldn’t have been written as such five years from now, and will probably date faster than most SF novels published in 2009. In the meantime, though, it’s a welcome demonstration of Williams’ skills, a solid follow-up to his previous Implied Spaces and a novel that, given his background, only he could have written.