Monday, January 4, 2010

This Is Not a Game

by Walter Jon Williams, 2009.

One of the works I considered as part of the 'genre published in 2009' as a Hugo voter for this year. To state upfront--this is nowhere near good enough to merit being on the shortlist for the Hugo[1]. It also suffers a bit by coming in my reading immediately after Lavinia, as it's an order of magnitude less ambitious, creative, clever and successful. Nevertheless, I liked this one, overall probably more than Stardust. It's a technothriller with large tokens of a murder mystery, all wrapped around an intricate knowledge of online forums and live roleplaying. The knowledge of this type of sub-culture is where the book's strengths really lies, with a lot of humor and some interesting scenarios embedded into the plot. The characterization and plot is decent, and the above high points are enough to get pass some melodramatic silliness with the Russian Mafia.

The core of the larger idea here is on the basic danger of an unregulated market, the way profit can emerge through ripple effects that cause violence and chaos in the short term, and global collapse longer term. Specifically, there's a system of automated trading viruses that have become very good at mindlessly increasing wealth for their creator, up to the level of netting billions by collapsing entire national currencies. As a sci-fi metaphor this works decently, and some of the strongest work in this vein occurs through description off all the very real human suffering and death produced by such (coerced, in this case) market forces. However the resolution, as practically mandated by the style and techno-thriller format, is far too pat and simplifies everything. Foil the psychopathically greedy villain, use millions of online players to carry out a complex Internet-wide debugging operation, end the economic menace. It's possible to quite literally put the genie back in the bottle here, and there's little sight of any more complex evaluation or possible remedy towards economic meltdowns conventional or SFnal. Perhaps that's expecting too much from this, more than Williams really aimed at. Still, the field could always use more ambition and depth, particularly in a time like this dealing in a speculative fiction way with this particular theme.

This book reminded me of and was better than: Stross' Halting State.

This book reminded me of and was worse than: Reynolds' Chasm City.

[1] Not that this in principle rules anything out, given certain past debacles in who has managed to walk away with the award. See especially Goblet of Fire and Starship Troopers, as well as 2009's rather disappointing shortlist.

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