After a long stint running and hosting the latest successful artificial reality game produced by Great Big Idea, a company owned and run by one of her gamer friends from college, Dagmar is looking forward to a few weeks luxurious downtime in Jakarta. Her holiday halts as soon as she arrives, to find Bali's currency has collapsed and the entire country has folded into a vigorous state of civil unrest. Charlie's the best boss you could wish for, and he pulls out all the stops to get Dagmar rescued—but some problems are not easily solved by the application of money, and it takes the crowd-sourced suss and connections of the fan-gamers who follow Dagmar's creations to get her out of the country and back to safety.
Not long afterwards, Charlie is gunned down outside his own office building, right in front of Dagmar's eyes . . . and the camera of a gamer who's snooping for clues to Great Big Idea's current game, and who promptly uploads the video, thinking it to be a plot moment. With the police unable to bring adequate resources to bear, Dagmar decides to outsource the solving of the crime to the gamers, just as she did with her escape from Jakarta, at which point the border between game and reality breaks down entirely, and no one is quite sure who's playing who, or what. Or why.
Long known as a genre-stretching writer, This Is Not a Game sees Walter Jon Williams stepping into the increasingly SF-adjacent demesne of the technothriller. The obvious and immediate comparison in the SF realm is Charles Stross's Halting State, dealing as it does with pervasive global games and today's-tomorrow technologies, but Stross's book is much more the insider novel—not inside the industry of games as such, but much closer to the culture of the people who play them. It's a native's pitch for the geek market; by comparison, This Is Not a Game is written for the much larger class of those peering in from the outside, even though their metaphorical noses are misting the glass thanks to Williams's solid research.
Moreover, Halting State is primarily concerned with massively multiplayer online role-playing games (also known as MMORPGs, or MMOs for Twitter-grade shortness), whereas the games in Williams's novel are ARGs: alternate reality games. To the uninitiated, the difference may not be immediately apparent, so allow me to try an encapsulation—MMOs take place predominantly in a computer-generated artificial world, while ARGs are fictional ludic worlds embedded within the fabric of the everyday world we live in. ARGs use real people and real locations alongside fictional media to tell a story in which the public can become not only engrossed but directly involved. The players become minor characters, moving items and solving puzzles to enable the main fictive characters to progress through the plot. ARGs are still in their infancy at the moment, but the interest (and innovation) shown in recent efforts (especially that produced by industrial band Nine Inch Nails to promote their Year Zero album) suggests that the growth spurts of adolescence cannot be far ahead. The core difference between the two forms is the degree of Suvinian cognitive estrangement that they present to the player—a difference which maps fairly well to that between the technothriller and the SF novel. An ARG (or technothriller) twists reality; an MMO (or SF novel) creates a new reality.
So, which set of rules is This Is Not a Game following—those of the SF novel, or those of the technothriller? Neither the UK nor the US cover offers much in the way of clues (though the US cover is, to my mind, the better), and it's not until we get to the jacket blurb that the word "thriller" is deployed explicitly, and even then it's accompanied by the prefix "near-future". So we'll have to rely on the text to tell us how to read it, or perhaps to merely thumb its postmodern nose at our attempts at taxonomy. The technothriller—for better or for worse, according to your own tastes—is probably best exemplified by the work of the late Michael Crichton. It's often technophobic, concerned with the deployment of science in the hands of those ideologically opposed to you (and hence, implicitly, evil or foolish or both); it tends to hinge on the old Twilight Zone moral, the subtext that "there were some things mankind was not supposed to know or fiddle with". There is none of this straw man stuff in This Is Not a Game; all the misuses of technology are purely in service of believable and personal character goals. Furthermore, the technothriller is rarely kind to female characters, but Williams has a smart and independently successful woman front and centre in the lead role. While Dagmar has a few "girly moments", she's an active and resourceful protagonist with a believable spread of emotional responses, and the nullification of the villain is primarily down to her.
So maybe it's safe to treat This Is Not a Game as science fiction. Science fiction ideally extrapolates from one or more core assumptions of dissonance and (at its best) strives for plausibility in its thickening of plot: there should be no deus ex machina or get-out-of-jail-frees; problems have to be answered on their own terms with the tools and talents to hand. There should be no obfuscation or demonisation of technology: technology is just a tool, and the evil (or good) is in the hand that wields it. Williams gets ticks in all these boxes; he also scatters in the self-referential Easter Eggs that are a hallmark of the SF insider (tuckerisms and knowing nods to authors and books of the genre). By these rough metrics, then (which admittedly not every reader might concur with, and which I deploy here more for the sake of illustrating an argument than some form of genre prescriptivism), This Is Not a Game seems to be asking us to treat it as more of an SF novel than a technothriller.
But curiously enough, it's Williams's adherence to the rules (or perhaps instincts) of the experienced SF writer that introduce the biggest flaw of This Is Not a Game . . . either that, or it's the same daemon operating in reverse here in the head of the reader. Allow me to explain—modern SF is strong on foreshadowing so as to avoid the deus ex machina trap, and as such the SF reader is accustomed to looking closely for such revelations, treating them as examples of Chekov's Gun and storing them away against their inevitable reappearance in the story at some crucial juncture. As such, for the observant reader, Williams's plot—while eminently believable, and plausible to a degree which the technothrillers of my acquaintance could not aspire—fumbles the prestige.
I'm usually quite contemptuous of the thinking that suggests reviews should avoid spoilers, taking the view that if the surprise of the prestige is the thing that makes the book worth reading, there probably isn't much more to it than that. Here I am forced to reassess my position somewhat, though I hold that it's an exceptional case; This Is Not a Game is a good read in its own right, but to go into detail about the pivot point of the plot would eviscerate much of the suspense and thrill of the ride. So obvious was the identity of the villain—and so early on—that I genuinely thought it was the most watertight red herring I'd ever encountered, and eagerly chuntered through the rest of the story, waiting for the final prestidigitatory flourish wherein my assumptions were shattered.
It never came.
Perhaps we can partly blame my own identification with the villain; Williams has certainly played on this effect, but by no means to excess. But it really felt too obvious, and was confirmed too soon, with almost a third of the book remaining when reader and protagonist are both aware of the villain's identity. Why keep reading when the mystery's already solved?
I kept reading, as mentioned earlier, in expectation of having the rug pulled out from underneath me in the final moments, my surprise doubtless mirroring Dagmar's as she realises she'd been duped into suspecting the wrong person. And credit where it's due, Walters' writing never fails—his prose is unobtrusive and his pacing excellent, and he kept my interest right up to the end. But the payoff just wasn't there in proportion to what I was expecting; the storytelling is distinctively science fictional in style and character, but the plot lacks the revelatory close that is SF's hallmark, opting instead for the sweep-up-the-pieces-and-put-the-cat-out thread tidying of the mystery or thriller.
To be fair, This Is Not a Game might have scored much higher on science fictional sensawunda had it not been for the big news stories of the last twelve months—global covert networks and the economies of entire countries collapsing are quite literally last year's stories, and make This Is Not a Game more of a book of its day than I imagine was ever planned. Knowing a little something about the length of the publishing cycle, I rather suspect Williams, as he watched the news over the last year and a half, has been torn between feeling satisfied at having spotted the possibilities and frustrated at seeing the novelty bleed out of his plot.
As such, I feel we should read This Is Not a Game as a genuine hybrid, an effort to take the best bits of the technothriller and the SF novel and combine them into something that can straddle both camps. It's perhaps more of a reflection on this reader in particular that this hybridisation should lessen the book's appeal as science fiction, but nonetheless: This Is Not a Game is a technothriller with the distinction of being written with a respect for the reader's intelligence, and I would love to see more books like it on the shelves at supermarkets and airports.
Paul Graham Raven is a freelance writer, editor, publicist and web-presence manager to busy independent creatives, and PR guy for PS Publishing, the UK's foremost boutique genre press. He's also ed-in-chief of near-future SF webzine Futurismic, a learning fictioneer and poet, a reviewer of books, music and concerts, a cack-handed third guitarist for a fuzz-rock band, and in need of a proper haircut.