There are things that have never yet happened, precisely, but which might happen quite soon; the thing that makes techno-thrillers part of SF whether their authors acknowledge it or not is that the rules which apply in them are still "what if" and "if this goes on" and "OMG this is so Cool." The technologies used in them may already exist, and they may be more about now than about the (near) future, but that is more often the case in the broad stream of SF than we quite like to acknowledge. The decision to write techno-thrillers, then, may be in part a decision to write something a publisher wants to buy—Deep State makes some sardonic points about the way several of its gamer characters have been driven out of publishing SF novels by the state of the market—but it is also a way of exploring some of the specific things that SF does and has always done.
Deep State and its predecessor This is Not a Game are also books that fall into the main body of Walter Jon Williams's work, just as the sea stories he wrote early in his career did. Dagmar, his central character, is a typical Williams protagonist, damaged, devious, with a surprising capacity for pulling rabbits out of hats whenever the plot requires it. She is also—and this makes her more likable than some of Williams's past major characters, the sheriff in Days of Atonement, say, or Caroline Sula in the Dread Empire sequence—not only prepared to accept help from those around her but rather good at inspiring that sort of loyalty which means that people excel at what they do in order to serve and please her.
Haunted by the dangers she experienced in This is Not a Game, and by the deaths of friends and lovers—haunted to the extent of periodically seeing Indonesian secret police thugs who are not there—Dagmar is nonetheless taking care of business. She runs online games that spill over into the real world and is in Turkey organizing one for the new Bond film, a Turkey which has had yet another military coup, under the pretext of saving secular nationalism from an Islamic threat. Actually—and almost everyone knows this, including the American State Department—this particular lot of generals are heavily involved in narcotics smuggling and are far more interested in protecting their criminal profits than in politics. Obliged by her employer Lincoln—who is clearly not telling her the entire truth about his employers—to dine with the junta, Dagmar puts her foot in it. When the junta petulantly respond by harassing her game, Dagmar effortlessly circumvents them—and then Lincoln comes to her with an interesting proposition about payback. . .
Like many SF novels, Deep State essentially consists of a novella's worth of set-up and a short novel's length of pay-off; we are reminded of what Damar normally does—without the personal jeopardy and endless breakneck escapes of This is Not a Game—and then we are shown how her techniques of social engineering and audience participation could be made to serve rather different ends. Lincoln turns out to have hired Dagmar essentially to audition her for a bigger job, that of bringing down of the junta. If untrained and uncoordinated demonstrators can bring down, or at least shake, ruthless regimes by using social networks, how much the more so when they have the assistance of professionals? Dagmar has a score to settle with the junta, and she is in sympathy with the opposition. She and her team also forget, in their dealings with Lincoln, that nothing comes for free and what you need when dining with the Devil.
This is not the best of Williams—he continues here the fragments of net chatter which were central to the plot of This is Not a Game, when net communities were coming together to help Dagmar escape, but here are a little trivial and redundant. The scattered elements of detective story—someone is playing Dagmar false apart from Lincoln, and she is oddly slow in working out who it is—are not especially well done, and we know far too much more than she does about the plot McGuffin known as the High Zap, which feels unfair. Dagmar and Lincoln are solidly in the book, but some of their team feel a little like place-holders for actual three-dimensional characters; if we are going to care about the ones who fail to make it alive through this convoluted plot, they need to be more than red-shirts. On the other hand, the sketchiness of some of the writing here comes in part from the book's immediacy—it was clearly written at white heat in order to get out into the world a cool idea before something quite like it actually happens.
During the Green Uprising in Tehran in 2009, the Iranian leadership went to extraordinary lengths in an attempt to prove that old-style print and television journalists were coordinating the protests on behalf of the CIA—they largely failed to understand the role of social media. The successful Tunisian revolt that was going on as I read Williams's book was largely managed through social media; in a less crucial way, the student demonstrations of last autumn were successful both in evading police control and retaining some public sympathy because police excesses could be photographed and sent to YouTube. As I write, the Egyptian government is trying to control revolt by turning off the entire Internet and phone network—it remains to be seen how successful this will be. Future threatened regimes may yet use the plot of this excellent thriller as a propaganda weapon—the book is just that savvy and timely.
Roz Kaveney is a writer and reviewer living in London. Her most recent book is the BSFA Award-nominated Superheroes!; other titles include Reading the Vampire Slayer, From Alien to The Matrix, and Teen Dreams.
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