I don’t think I’ve read a Walter Jon Williams novel before. I’ve read some of his short stories, in anthologies, and generally loved them. Pretty sure I got this novel from Better World Books because it was in the bargain pile and I thought it would be an interesting enough place to start reading his work. Plus, I suspect I was in a cyberpunk zone.
ETA: No, I am stupid. Of course I have read other Williams books… This is Not a Game, AND Deep State, and The Fourth Wall. I can’t believe I forgot that.
It’s a good thing I have read other stuff by him in the past.
It’s not a bad book. I did finish it. But it’s definitely not a great book, and I’ll be more circumspect in what I choose to read of his in future. Probably I will ask Jonathan for recommendations. A couple of reviewers over on Goodreads suggested that this was an example of style over substance, and that this was Williams trying to be William Gibson. The former I agreed with, by about halfway through; the second I disagree with, although I haven’t read Gibson’s complete cyberpunk oeuvre so perhaps I can’t entirely make that decision.
Style over substance: there are some lovely, almost lyrical passages in this novel. There are some amusing and clever descriptive passages. There are some that are just a bit silly, though, and seem like evidence either of Williams trying a bit too hard or the editor not trying hard enough.
William Gibson: keeping in mind it’s been a while since I read Neuromancer etc, I think there’s a different aesthetic at work here, and a different use for technology. Williams has tech for a purpose, and that’s why it exists. Even the character who loves the tech and most lives for it loves what it allows him to do, and feel – being a pilot. My memory of Gibson is that the technology is a bit more… pure is the wrong word, but perhaps abstract? Good for doing stuff, but that’s not it’s sole purpose. Those who are more familiar with Gibson, feel free to correct! (This reminds me that I really, really must read them again/finish the series (pl) that I have started…).
This is a world where orbital communities are doing nasty things to the dirt-siders, along the lines of controlling their economy and doling out important things like drugs (… the medicinal ones and the ‘medicinal’ ones). Well, I say ‘dirt-siders’; I really mean ‘people living in the former USA’, because as far as I can tell the rest of the world just doesn’t exist for this novel. Just a little thing those of us outside of the USA notice. Anyway, it’s the former USA because it’s all been divided up for various reasons that I’m sure have more resonance with people who have an actual grip on USAn geography and history (i.e. not me).
The novel is told from two perspectives: Cowboy is a pilot who lives to fly but has been grounded by the dangers of doing so – because he mostly flies on illicit ‘pony express’-type runs. Well, he’s been grounded, but he still gets to do his runs in a panzer. I was a bit dozy while reading the start because it took me ages to realise that meant he was crashing across continental US in a tank. The other perspective is provided by Sarah, whose childhood was seriously screwed up and who will do most anything to raise the serious money needed to get a better life, including radical body mods and very dangerous work. Cowboy and Sarah’s stories collide, mesh, separate and do reasonably interesting things. Intertwined throughout are advertisements for various companies – mostly for body mods or drugs – and the occasional news heading. I don’t think this is something invented by Williams, but when it’s done well (and I think it is here) I really like it as a style.
Cowboy and Sarah are both interesting enough, but I didn’t really engage with either of them. They were both too distant. Cowboy’s monomania about flying – even when it begins to get tempered by a developing conscience – prevented me from clicking with him. I thought he was pretty consistent, though, and could appreciate that. Sarah didn’t really work overall. Her concern for her brother, especially, felt out of place with the rest of her attitudes. I have no doubt it’s possible for a cynical, pessimistic person to care as deeply for a family member as Sarah is shown to – but I didn’t buy it here. Especially given what it ends up costing her.
The plot itself is fast-paced enough that I kept reading; there were some nice twists, although nothing completely unexpected. I don’t remember anything that made me want to throw the book away, so that’s faint praise but praise nonetheless. Not one I’m recommending to anyone but a hardcore Williams or cyberpunk fan.
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.
(Well, of course it is; but every chapter is entitled “This is not a…” and the trick is to figure out whether that’s the truth, or a lie, or a clue, or all three.)
This is not science fiction.
Well, it might have been when it was published – in 2008 – but I’m fairly sure that the requisite technology actually exists in the real world, now, to make everything (except maybe for the twist, but I’m not sure) actually work.
Dagmar Shaw’s job is writing ARGs – massively multi-player games where players access information etc on the web, but sometimes partake in real-world and real-time events, too. It’s all about puzzle-solving and cross-referencing with other players to figure out what the next clue is and how the game’s story is going to unfold. When things go wrong for Dagmar, she finds herself tapping into this Group Mind, and the possibilities inherent in having several tens of thousands of people – bored people with access to the wonders of the internet – willing to work for you are demonstrated.
It’s not the sort of game I can imagine myself being involved in, but I absolutely understand the appeal. One of the neat narrative tricks Williams uses is including message forum threads, so that the players’ points of view become part of the narrative; they’re nice little vignettes. I know that there have been some attempts, usually connected with marketing (which this is too), to have real-world/web crossovers, but I understand they’ve not always been that successful. Williams suggests one way of making it successful: better writing, and better narrative.
I like Dagmar. I read the sequel to this (Deep State) first, which is something that I almost never do, and while the idea of this sort of game is intriguing and I wanted to see how it started, it was Dagmar that was the clincher. It’s not that she is that unique or anything, she’s just an engaging and absorbing character. Which is really nice.
Overall this is a highly entertaining, fast-paced, well-detailed and appropriately twisty story. It’s probably not the sort of book to read twice, because of the twists and turns, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Dagmar Shaw is a game designer, but her games are way more interesting than any MMORPG that exists today. I never entirely came to grips with what Alternate Reality Games actually entail, but it has players follow a story, interpret clues online, and it sometimes has real-world connections. The story opens with Dagmar Shaw designing a James Bond movie tin-in game that sees some players going to Turkey to actually follow some of the action in real life, while tens of thousands of others follow the video and other media Dagmar and her employees upload to the web. She runs a successful game, and is then recruited by a US – ah – security specialist to do some interesting things in Turkey. Which she does. Things do not go entirely to plan, not unexpectedly.
It’s interesting coming to Deep State after having read The Dervish House. Both are set in Turkey, but that’s about where the similarities end. The plots are entirely different, and Deep State isn’t as futuristic as Dervish House. More interestingly, where McDonald made almost all of his characters Turkish, and events happen exclusively in Istanbul with little reference to the outside world, Williams has only a few Turkish characters, and the plot revolves around foreigners getting themselves involved in Turkish politics. Williams does seem to know Istanbul, but he doesn’t evince quite the same love for the country as McDonald; and Turkey is not of the same fundamental importance to Williams as it was to McDonald. Deep State could as easily be set almost anywhere but Western Europe, I think. Turkey, although quite well realised, is not irreplaceable.
This is, it turns out, the second book about the main character here, Dagmar. She has a few flashbacks to the events of the first, This is Not a Game, and there are a few aspects of her character that are not entirely explicable but would be, I think, with knowledge of earlier events. However, it does stand alone fairly well.
The story is well-paced. The opening, with the James Bond game, is as exciting as it should be. There are lulls in the action for character development, the action is spread over a few different characters, and it wraps up nicely. I enjoyed the politics, although I’m not au fait enough with the current Turkish situation to know whether it is completely believable or not. The characters are not the most well-developed I’ve ever read, but they were more than sufficient to carry the plot. Dagmar herself is quite complex enough to be interesting; she had a difficult childhood and still suffers from the aftereffects of the events of the first book. These make her more than simply another game designer, as well as more than simply a cipher. Her boss is appropriately mysterious, while the members of her team are varied enough to provide interesting interactions. I really enjoyed the snippets of online discussion that were included; it was a nice touch. Overall the book could have done with a few more female characters; given that most of them are computer-types of one sort or another, there’s not even the (weak and laughable) excuse of needing men to do the action stuff. There were, I think, only three female characters, and one of them was almost incidental. This was my main disappointment with the novel.
Aside from the plot and the characters, the really cool part of the book – and one that, I must admit, I probably didn’t appreciate as fully as I might have – was the tech side. The creation of the ARG by Dagmar and her team, the way in which they manipulate video, the technology they use to keep track of everything: very, very cool.
Deep State is immensely enjoyable. I have put the first book on my to-read list, and expect that there will be a third at some time which I will definitely be seeking out.