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Monday, January 25, 2010

Book Review: THIS IS NOT A GAME by Walter Jon Williams

[Remember, back in September, when I said this: I'm thinking of converting a couple of the little papers I had to write for school into something resembling actual "book reviews"...]
Just out in paperback this January, THIS IS NOT A GAME by Walter Jon Williams.
As I am working in games full-time, at the moment, I thought it would be interesting to read a book about the future of games and on-line social networks. It's a hot topic, at the moment, and Walter Jon Williams is a solid SF author, capable of tackling the subject intelligently, with an exciting plot. Fundamentally, the book is entertaining and the SF-nal ideas are sound and interesting. However, as a work of narrative, I found the "novel" fundamentally, structurally flawed.
Beginnings, middles, and ends are the fundamental building blocks of plot structure. Implicit with these building blocks is the assumption that the three pieces of narrative connect in meaningful ways. Even with shifty, experimental beasts, like the elusive “Mosaic Novel”, there is an understanding of a fundamental and consistent connection between the chunks of narrative. “This Is Not a Game” by Walter Jon Williams disconnects the narrative between the beginning and the middle in a jarring way, and fails to rise above anything but SF-nal entertainment.
The main character, Dagmar, has two locations in the book, and two sources of primary narrative conflict. First, she is in Indonesia during a financial meltdown. Then, she is located in Los Angeles, during a murder mystery. The disconnect between these two sections doesn't just end with the major source of narrative conflict. In the moment-to-moment actions of the story, the section in Indonesia involves a slew of characters that make no more appearances in the novel once Dagmar leaves Indonesia. The martial arts school that literally saves Dagmar's life out of the kindness of their hearts disappears from the rest of the book. The Israeli private security company that loses a helicopter and the lives of its men trying to rescue Dagmar make no appearance in the second half of the book, despite constant phone calls and contact during the first section. The major players of the murder mystery make only a minimal appearance in the Indonesian section, if at all. As important a role as Great Big Idea's computer ninja plays in the murder mystery, the character isn't part of the Indonesian section at all.
How does Williams try to make it work, with this structural disconnect, and does it work? The first section's action is broken up with a shift in narrative perspective to the individual members of the gamer group that are the heart of the murder mystery section, including a veiled reference to the software that's destroying the Indonesian marketplace. The narrative mechanic of the message board, complete with many of the major players of the second section, ties the larger theme of the whole story, of group minds accomplishing great things that individuals cannot. The character of Dagmar is placed in Indonesia, initially, as her response response to a love affair gone bad, with a man that will become a stalker and murder victim in the Los Angeles section. Finally, much of Dagmar's time in Indonesia is spent in introspection about the characters of Charles, BJ, and Austin, ruminating on how and why things ended up as they did with each character. Combined, however, these tools pulled the reader out of the moment, and out of the intensity of Dagmar's situation in the disintegrating situation in Indonesia.
The conspicuous absence of the Israeli mercenary company during the troubles that result in the Los Angeles, as Charles runs for his life from hotel to hotel and Dagmar integrates an increasingly more dangerous murder mystery investigation, is compounded by the sudden arrival of one of the most important figures in the murder mystery: Richard the Assassin. The tech security chief at Great Big Idea is a vital part of the endgame, but is only introduced as an aside late in the game, and never given a chance to be as much of a character as side characters that aren't as vital to the action of the story, like “Hellmouth”, the game designer, who plays almost no role in the murder investigation but does try to steal every scene in Los Angeles.
The disconnection between the two sections is jarring. The book manages to be entertaining regardless, but after completing the novel, one can't help but feel like Walter Jon Williams began his novel idea with a short story, and then tacked on a larger story at the end, much later.
I am interested, fundamentally and deeply, in what Jeff VanderMeer calls the “Mosaic Novel”, and though I see pieces of that idea present here in Walter Jon Williams' book, I do not see enough to bridge the gap between structurally flawed book and a mosaic piece, like his prior, excellent novel "Implied Spaces". Instead, with “This Is Not A Game”, I feel like I'm reading a short story, and the novella sequal, jammed inelegantly together in the guise of a novel.
Is it a fun book? Sure, it's fun. Go for a ride, if the subject interests you, and you - like me - are a fan of Walter Jon Williams, but expect a big, huge bump in the narrative tracks between Indonesia and LA.

1 comment:

Laurence MacNaughton said...

I asked Walter Jon Williams about This Is Not a Game, and he told me a little about the sequel, Deep State, which he just finished writing. Unfortunately, he also said that publishers aren't exactly beating down his door for sequels to Metropolitan, which is one of my favorite books ever. (If you're interested, you can read the whole interview for free on )