Slum Online reminds you, as so many action novels do, of the days when life made sense for men. There were guys you could trounce in combat, and there were guys who could trounce you. Your actions were what counted. They either made you less of a man or they made you more of a man. A few words of French to titillate the ladies, and a man was all set. Simple. It's all so damnably complicated now.
Sakurazaka's novel, set in the twenty-first century, speaks to this simplicity. First published in Japanese in 2005, this first English translation comes with a new "bonus round" chapter. Etsuro Sakagami, the protagonist of Slum Online, is a college freshman who is quite ordinary in RL—real life—but becomes quietly extraordinary as the karate fighter Tetsuo, in the online multi-player combat game, Versus Town.
This is not a futuristic cyber novel in the classic sense. There are no data ports in skulls, no machines to hack, no hot replicant chicks, no vast sinister AI intelligences to fight and no neural jacking whatsoever. Etsuro plays Versus Town in his bedroom. The technology is current, one step above arcade games; the mention of fiber optics is about as advanced it gets. In fact, computation is quite irrelevant for the story (except at one point, where a detail about a fighting technique becomes important). One might say the novel is about the ghost in the machine: us. The technology it's really concerned with is our incredible, near-magical ability as humans to adapt our body-minds to the tools at hand; in this case, a keyboard, screen, and a joystick with three buttons.
Etsuro is not a misfit in RL; he's only bored with it. Nothing seems to have much of a point in RL. It is, as one of his professors, remarks "a world without heroes" (p. 83) and as Etsuro narrates "full of convoluted laws in which I had little or no interest" (p. 41). He drifts in and out of classes. He observes commuting "salarymen"—work drones—and knows success in RL means being one of them in a few years. His professors are full of useless knowledge: one lectures on cannibalism in wheat-eating beetles, another holds forth on cults and gamers, and a third is all about widgets, prices, and people who buy them. When he meets Fumiko in RL, the girl who proceeds to seriously complicate his life, he finds her voice "anime-saccharine" (p. 42). When he sees her hair bunch up at the back in the rain, he sees anime shadows on her neck. When Etsuro hears sounds in RL, it reminds him of sound FX in games: "The sound FX of a dawn redwood rustling in the wind. The sound FX of a truck trundling along Omne Highway. The sound FX of Fumiko's eraser attacking her paper" (p. 101).
As he explains to Fumiko, Versus Town offers an escape from all the noise. It teaches nothing. It wants nothing. It offers nothing except another opponent who is equally disenchanted with RL. In Versus Town he is Tetsuo, and Tetsuo does not need to think; he acts. He acts to win. And Tetsuo is good at winning.
Winning in Versus Town means gaining in rank. A character's rank depends on the number of hand-to-hand combats he/she has won. Only official fights affect one's ranking and take place on the arena, a broad, featureless area with rules and prizes and an audience. The unofficial fights take place in the streets of the three districts of the virtual city. They are loosely regulated in that Versus Town discourages too many unofficial fights.
But there's trouble brewing in Versus Town. A mysterious and unbeatable gamer, Ganker Jack, has started to take down the top players. A ganker is a wanker who doesn't play by an online game's rules and takes what doesn't belong to them. In this case, Ganker Jack refuses to fight in the arena or respect its ranking procedures. Ganker Jack disrespects the cardinal faith of combat games, namely, that there's an objective measure of a player's skill. Tetsuo, Etsuro's alter ego, launches a personal quest to find Ganker Jack. Naturally, Fumiko helps and hinders in that quest. She's in search of a blue cat in RL, by all accounts nothing more than an urban legend, but her nutty quest starts to tie in with Tetsuo's quest in the virtual for Ganker Jack.
The story is narrated by Etsuro. That's a statement that raises an interesting problem. When Etsuro enters the virtual world, he becomes Tetsuo, but continues to narrate as Etsuro. But Tetsuo is not Etsuro. So when Tetsuo speaks or acts, he's not necessarily echoing Etsuro's preferences or even his thoughts. Tetsuo, Etsuro begins to realize, has a personhood independent from his. This particular realization is a gift from Hashimoto, a self described "collector of information" (p. 90), who helps Tetsuo in Versus Town. Hashimoto doesn't fight. In a virtual world of doers, Hashimoto is the resident philosopher. His gift is the key to what happens in Tetsuo's eventual fateful confrontation with Ganker Jack. Gifts induce a sense of being indebted. In the new "bonus round" of the book, Hashimoto's gift is repaid.
The outcomes of fights shape the evolution of Versus Town. Though there's no death in Versus Town, there's still the notion of irreversibility. When Tetsuo loses an important fight with Ricky, another fighter, the fact of that defeat is irreversible. The arrow of irreversibility is a kind of personal time that shapes the evolution of the characters in Versus Town, and one's ranking is a measure of that personal time. Perhaps every virtual world without true death needs a Ganker Jack.
The characters, both in RL and virtual reality, are generic but there's a deliberate quality to the genericity. One of the book's points is that personhood works the same way in both RL and virtual reality, so RL is rendered here as characters with traits, anime-style features, and sharp, precise gestures. We might as well get used to it, because game books are probably going to require a new kind of reading.
Slum Online should therefore be of special interest to writers and ludologists. It raises narratological issues about the representation of consciousness in game worlds. The problem is not too different from narrating the inner life of a mind, because our inner virtual realities are just as sensory-driven as Versus Town is action-driven. But I found it hard going in places. Sakurazaka's approach is to flip back and forth between game action and narrative monologue, and the action sequences are the weakest part of the book. Reading about how a karate fight went down is like listening to a friend describe an action movie. It can be fun, but not if the friend goes on for half an hour. Here, action sequences are often several pages long, and filled with passages such as this:
Ricky back-dashed. Tetsuo speed-dashed. Immediately canceling, Tetsuo back-dashed and then jump-kicked. The kick landed as a counterhit on the crouching punch Ricky had intended to meet Tetsuo's speed dash. Ricky flew into the air, but not high enough. Tetsuo caught Ricky's falling body with a crouching punch. Canceling out . . . (p. 126).
Perhaps such descriptions are an acquired taste. I skimmed the action pages, but was still able to enjoy the book. The author is in a bind, of course. Combat worlds are about action. So any textual description subtracts from that truth.
Joseph Reeder's smooth translation makes the novel feel like an English book set in Japan. Perhaps the best way to describe it is that I had no desire to read the original in Japanese. There's no sense anything's been lost in translation, especially in the dialogue, which strikes the right balance between gamester slang and what I presume is Japanese terseness.
Frank Herbert, in discussing the writing of Dune, remarked that a truly advanced technology could again make feudalism feasible. Hashimoto's alter ego, contemplating his strange RL life, thinks:
What if, I wondered, I'm at the cutting edge of human evolution . . . It's the kind of thing that, only a century ago, only the nobility or the particularly well off would have even dreamed of contemplating.
Perhaps a truly advanced tech will make the world simpler to negotiate, not more complicated. But what Slum Online sets out to show, I think, is that whether human worlds are simple or complicated, what makes them work are the usual invariants: friendships, compassion, and perseverance in the face of odds. The sound FX of applause.
Anil Menon worked for about nine years in software R&D worrying about things like secure distributed databases and evolutionary computation. Then he shifted to a different kind of fiction. His stories can be found in magazines such as Albedo One, Chiaroscuro, Interzone, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, New Genre, Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as TEL: Stories, Shockwave, and From the Trenches. He was nominated for the 2006 Carl Brandon Society's Parallax Prize and the 2007 Million Writers Award. His YA novel The Beast with Nine Billion Feet is out now from Zubaan Books.