In Players, Paul McAuley has taken another step in his journey from writing far-flung science fiction to modern-day thriller, from such out-there works as 1993's Red Dust (about Chinese Martian Elvis Presley worshippers) through 2004's White Devils (a postcolonial African bioengineering thriller) and now to Players, an only lightly science-fictional crime thriller. With the current popularity of CSI, Michael Crichton, and online role playing, this book stands a good chance at commercial success.
Dirk Merrit is a (rapidly becoming ex-) billionaire video game developer who has been killing people. He has a psychopathic assistant, Carl, who is trying to rob him blind but in the meantime sets up hunts wherein Merrit can exercise his prowess over his prey. Merrit has blown almost his entire fortune, which he gained from developing and investing in a postapocalyptic MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) called Trans, similar to World of Warcraft. He spent it on plastic surgery to transform himself into one of the vampirelike Overlords from the game and on building a mansion that looks exactly like an Overlord castle.
One of his female victims escapes, but she dies on the way to the hospital after being found naked in the rural Oregon woods. This brings the attention of the local police, including our hero, a newly minted detective from Portland, OR, Summer Ziegler, who becomes involved in the case when she's chosen to notify the dead girl's stepfather. Despite Merrit's quickie attempt to frame a local crazy guy, there are enough discrepancies to keep Summer and a local detective named Denise Childers investigating the case.
McAuley follows most of the conventions of the crime thriller, and Players could easily make a good late-summer movie: the individual police keep investigating despite pressure from their superiors; there's friction between the big-city and small-town police (and then the FBI); we get to watch the investigative process and the efforts of the criminals to elude detection; our heroes end up in mortal peril; and there is a visually sumptuous climactic confrontation, engineered by the overly dramatic serial killer. McAuley is well versed in these conventions and very playful with them. He throws out broad flags telling the reader to expect certain plot elements, especially setting up artificial deadlines and love interests for Summer, then either innocently whistling by them or subverting them in amusing ways:
"Our new public defender is a young guy eager to make his mark. He'll be all over this case. . . . He'll be defending your Mr. Farrell tomorrow, by the way, I should have mentioned that up front. Stop by the court before the session begins tomorrow, around ten, and I'll introduce you. Mark Kirkpatrick. He's from old money, but he's basically one of the good guys."
"I'd like that." (p. 76)
If ever there were a love-interest setup for a recently single heroine, that is it. What comes of it? Probably not what the reader expects.
Within this light satire, McAuley creates sympathetic characters. The relationship between Summer and her mother is particularly well done and gives the whole story a nice grounding in normality. He keeps up the pace, following several threads at once to keep any of them from getting bogged down. His prose has a light touch, and his dialogue is fun to read. He's not shy about his cultural references, explicitly calling out CSI, Monk, and other TV shows and movies.
Jesse Little said, "I like that one with the guy who has obsessive-compulsive disorder. Monk. You ever watch that, Jacklet?"
"You should, it's pretty good. Funny and weird, like real life. One of his problems, he has a bug about neatness, gets upset if things aren't just so. Every time he discovers a fresh crime scene, he has to struggle real hard against the impulse to straighten it up."
"I know what you mean," Jim Jacklet said. "I turn up one time at a convenience store robbery, the clerk got shot? The uniform who responded to the nine-eleven is sitting in the clerk's chair, reading the clerk's comic book."
"That's not exactly what I meant," Jesse Little said.
"It's a funny story—isn't that the point?" (p. 141)
The setting of the book is very now. The Bush administration and the war in Iraq are both mentioned. The game at the center of the story, Trans, is perfectly believable in today's world. The author refers to Eastern European "click farms," where young people are paid slave wages to play the game for profit. In the real world, players of Everquest and World of Warcraft will force-level-up characters to sell to people who don't want to do the entry-level work themselves, or go after powerful items in the game to sell to people willing to buy them. Thanks to the wonders of eBay, real money is exchanged for these beefed-up characters and superpowered items.
The boyfriend of the female victim, Billy, or Ratking, was one of the players who go hunting for special items to sell. This apparently brought him to Merrit's attention, and he was kidnapped at the same time as his girlfriend, although he was killed in the Nevada desert. Before his untimely death, he had been teaming up with another star player, Daryl, or Seeker8, a young black man in Brooklyn, New York, to go after a rumored "ultimate" object at the heart of the game. We see Merrit slowly stalking Seeker8, grooming the young man to be his next victim. In the background is the world of electronic bank crime, with Merrit ripping off his customers and Carl enlisting one of the employees of Merrit's company to help him rip off their employer.
Merrit is a serial-killer villain in a classic, flamboyant mode. He has a very specific modus operandi, releasing his prey in an open landscape, chasing them in an ultralight glider, wearing them down, and eventually killing them by crossbow bolt. Then he removes the heart, drinks some blood, and takes some trophies. He fancies himself smarter than everyone else, and happily (if not totally successfully) takes on the role of charming evil genius, speaking to the police in his inner sanctum and playing mind games with them such as suggesting they watch The Most Dangerous Game. His extensive plastic surgery has left him with a freakish appearance reflecting his inner perversion:
Merrit's face was all planes and sharp angles, like a skull that had been shattered and reassembled in slightly the wrong way, or a Pharaoh's mummy brought to life. Skin stretched dead white over his ridged brow, his high cheekbones. His smile was full of teeth filed to points. His eyes were red: pupils like drops of blood. All this framed by the green silk of his upturned collar. (p. 87)
One of the most interesting contrasts in the book is between Merrit and Carl. Carl is a cold-blooded killer with completely understandable motives. He knows Merritt is insane, but he's perfectly happy to help his boss kill whoever needs killing so he can stay close enough to eventually get rich by ripping him off. Over the course of the book, he kills people who cross him, people who are in his way, and random people, to try to throw the police off Merrit's trail. He exemplifies Wednesday Addams's comment in The Addams Family (1991) about her seeming lack of a Halloween costume: "I'm a homicidal maniac. They look just like everyone else." There is a very real question here as to who exactly is scarier: the video-game-freak serial killer or the perfectly normal-looking functional psychopath?
McAuley neatly avoids scaremongering when it comes to the video game itself. Trans differs from World of Warcraft only in being science fictional and postapocalyptic instead of fantasy based. Although the game is violent and is at the heart of a book about violence, it is not any sort of mind-controlling or perverting influence. Merrit, the designer, was obviously obsessed with power and violence before he wrote it, working his predilections into the game instead of being influenced by it. Billy had previously been involved in game-related violence, but that was due to his teaming up with partners to find a quest item, then selling it himself and keeping the profit. The message seems to be that if you've created or taken part in an underworld economy, the violence associated with the underworld will come around to you. Also, Daryl, the star player and potential victim, is one of the most normal and positive characters in the book. He's working the game to help supplement his single mother's income. He never perpetrates violence, although his brother was killed in a drug-related shooting. He views the game, and eventually Merrit's offer to team up in person, as a way to escape his crime-riddled neighborhood. In contrasting the freakish and improbable violence of the book with the day-to-day version experienced in poor urban neighborhoods, McAuley reminds us of where the real threats to peace and order are.
The only disappointment in reading Players comes not from the book itself but from McAuley's reputation and history. Knowing his background as a writer of excellent science fiction, one keeps waiting for the science-fictional punch, for the point where the plot opens up and takes us into new realms of potential and imagination. He pulled this off neatly in White Devils, a near-future thriller set in Africa. After giving us eye kicks like butterflies with advertisements genetically engineered onto their wings and perfectly scientific human clones, the plot involves tracking down monsters created by the illegal genetic engineering of humans in the heart of Africa. The tone is much darker than that of Players, more like Crichton meets Heart of Darkness. In the end of White Devils the monsters are explained, and while the conclusion is in no way happy, one's view of the horizons of human and scientific potential is broadened. Here, however, the only vaguely science-fictional element is a speculative forensic technique involving inhaled pollen. In every way, it follows the conventions of the thriller, even to the end, which sees the villains defeated, law and order reassert themselves, and more-or-less-virtuous normality restored. This makes for a perfectly satisfying reading experience, but if readers are expecting something more, it will leave them waiting for the other shoe to drop, as it were.
It remains to be seen if McAuley can insert a nonhysterical, nonscaremongering, well-reasoned action-adventure into the territory so thoroughly colonized by Crichton. That author has certainly paved the way for science-fictional thrillers, but in a paranoid, increasingly antiscience sort of way. With the rise and hyperbolic success of crime shows such as CSI (and their attendant tie-in novels), the public may be more willing to view science, at least inasmuch as it helps law enforcement officers, in a positive light. If so, general readers may be willing to enjoy an adventure that does not attempt to frighten them with fantastical Frankenstein monsters but instead delves into the chilling territory of believable threats. We don't need to implausibly genetically engineer dinosaurs when we've got seriously insane people around who are willing to turn themselves into literal as well as metaphorical monsters. There is hope that people who pick up this lightly written, enjoyable thriller for a plane ride or an afternoon's summer reading will follow its author back to the realm of seriously extrapolated, thrilling, and interesting science fiction. Players (and maybe even the movie that it could easily beget) could prove to be a valuable gateway for people who are ready to move between the world of scare-of-the-month thrillers and that of real science fiction. It may be a far-fetched hope, but one can only wish McAuley plenty of luck in attracting those readers.
Karen Burnham is vocationally an engineer and avocationally a speculative fiction reviewer. She lives in Long Beach, CA, and archives her reviews at www.SpiralGalaxyReviews.com. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.