Breaking The Fourth Wall: a review

This is the third book in Williams’ series about Dagmar Shaw (the others are This is Not a Game and Deep State). I guess therefore this review may contain spoilers for those two books, like the fact that she survives.

This one is not like the others because Dagmar is not the main protagonist. Instead, she moves onto the sidelines, becoming a somewhat shadowy, sometimes even fearsome, mover and shaker. I was a bit surprised by this change because Dagmar had worked so very well in the others; she’s a character I developed a great rapport with. To see her from the perspective of someone else – someone to whom she is a stranger, and quite strange – was disconcerting. It does mean that someone could very easily read this without having read the other two; having read the first two it meant that I had a greater trust than Sean, the narrator, could have in her. Which distanced me slightly from Sean, and meant that I kept expecting great things from Dagmar.

Sean is twenty-something and, as the novel opens, a contestant on Celebrity Pitfighter, which is exactly what you’re thinking it is, with the added bonus that every round, there’s a surprise handicap. When Sean enters the ring to face Jimmy Blogjoy (!), he steps into a ring covered in cottage cheese. Our Sean qualifies for this edifying programme because he was a child star on a show called Family Tree… a rather long time ago. Since then, he’s done bits and pieces, but the reality is that ‘washed up’ is a kind description. He is hampered partly by a condition called pedomorphosis, which he describes as meaning that “while the rest of [his] body has aged normally, [his] head has retained the features of an infant” (p34). Cute in a kid, decidedly odd in an adult. This is, however, not a problem for the part that Dagmar Shaw wants him to audition for.

In the first two novels, Dagmar was running Alternate Reality games: games that interacted with reality once you’d signed up for it, that worked on a mass level and created huge flashmobs, and which occasionally had real-world implications. With this novel, she has moved to Hollywood and is looking to make her first feature film, although not quite in the way that Sean and his agent expect. The plot therefore revolves around the making of the film, which has two parts: first, the outrageous plans Dagmar has for making the film and changing the very experience of film-watching; second, the dramas on and off set between cast and crew – both of which suggest Williams has some experience of Hollywood and its weirdness.

If this were all the novel offered, it would still be very entertaining. But twisted throughout the novel is a rather curious reflection on the realities of life for Sean, has-been child star. One of the awesome techniques Williams used in previous novels is forum threads between people interacting in Shaw’s AR games. There’s not quite as much scope for that here, but it’s replaced by entries from Sean’s blog – because really, what’s a has-been celebrity going to do but blog about his has-been-ness? They come complete with comments, from trolls to supporters to spam. In these entries, Sean reflects on how he got to where he is, and particularly about how he was screwed over by his parents. It’s a neat way to get into Sean’s head a little bit more.

There’s also the fact that someone appears to be trying to kill Sean, which becomes quite the mystery for him to unravel. Williams doesn’t overplay this aspect, but weaves it too throughout the main narrative.

As mentioned above, I thought I was getting another Dagmar novel, so there was a level of disappointment when she didn’t turn out to be as present as I’d hoped. Sean is not as likeable as Dagmar; he’s close to being alcoholic, and while he’s not quite the ruthless Hollywood shark that some of his friends are, he is well aware of how to play the game, and is generally willing to do just that. I found his cynicism and pessimism somewhat disheartening, if realistic. Happily, though, he’s not completely repellant. He’s a good friend – usually – and his devotion to acting as a craft, as a lifelong passion, is a joy. Most of the characters do not get particularly fleshed out. Sean’s agent is a sleaze and a huckster; many of the showbiz types on the periphery of Sean’s world are not quite caricatures – they’re individual enough to miss that – but neither do they have much impact. Even Dagmar is shadowy, occasionally looming large and at other times disappearing into the background.

Finally, it’s important to discuss the SFnal nature of the book. It’s very much what I think of as ‘tomorrow fiction’: the technology is only just out of reach (probably), and the world as a whole is intensely, sometimes miserably, recognisable. The main technological advance is in the Alternate Reality goggles and other such ‘ware, which allows the user to see and interact with content that has been posted not just on the net, but in the ‘real’ world’. Sadly, most of the time AR seems to be used for ads and porn (see? recognisable and miserable). It’s the sort of SF which doesn’t always feel like SF, but then a character uses technology or mentions a recent event that sounds plausible, but definitely hasn’t happened (…yet…).

It’s a fast read, it’s a well-structured and pacey read, and it’s a lot of fun.

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