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Volume 28, Number 1, Fall, 2009

This is Not a Game

By Walter Jon Williams

Orbit, 2008
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard

This Is Not a Game fits into the same mode of near-future science fiction as Charles Stross’s Halting State or Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End. Like Vinge’s novel, it shows the use of distributed knowledge and intelligence brought together through computer networks to solve problems; in fact, it gives us more details on the actual mechanics of such cooperation than Vinge does. Like Stross’s novel, it’s about online financial transactions as motives for crime and intrigue. Also like Stross’s novel, it’s about the use of computers in playing games, and especially in alternate reality gaming, a new movement within the gaming community in which game spaces and actions are not set apart from actual life, but form part of it. The very title of the novel is also one of the slogans of this movement.

Williams focuses his story on four old friends whose lives have somewhat diverged: a venture capitalist, the head of a major corporation, a game designer, and a call center employee with a sideline in gold farming (playing online games to accumulate virtual assets that can then be sold for real money). They have a past history of gaming together in college; in fact, their respective game preferences are an important part of their characterization and are intelligently chosen. In the first part of the novel, one of them, Dagmar, is trapped in Indonesia when an international currency crisis shuts down all flights out and provokes riots in the city streets. She turns to the gaming community she supports for help, ingeniously defining the help as a way to score points within the game. In the second part, this same community becomes important once again as Dagmar finds herself enmeshed in corporate intrigue, secretive financial transactions, and a series of murders, with herself as a likely target for the next one.

There are in fact several distinct engines driving this plot forward. One of them is software written by one of the major characters that has gone out of control, on a scale that can threaten the global economy. The financial crises in fact have an alarmingly prescient sound, given that Williams must have been delivering the manuscript to the publisher about when the housing bubble first started to fall apart! On the other hand, Williams’s story has a happier ending than the real world economic crisis has had as yet.

At another level, this is a story about how the media affect the real world. In this, it’s a lot like Norman Spinrad’s ingenious Pictures at Eleven, published 15 years ago and now technologically obsolete, but still entertaining. In that story, a group of terrorists seize a Los Angeles television station and the station’s newsroom staff, trying to save their own lives, end up manipulating the situation in ways that affect the real world. Williams examines a very different medium, but the same theme: how the events in the simulated reality of the medium affect the real world and vice versa. I think it has to be said that the resulting story delivers exactly what the title promises.

This isn’t written quite as a science fiction novel; it’s obviously aimed to be accessible to readers of mainstream fiction, in the simplicity of its plot drivers and the social realist feel of its characterization. It also comes very close to being a technothriller at some points. But I think science fiction readers will be able to enjoy it. Libertarian Futurist Society members won’t find anything distinctively libertarian in it, but those who liked Vinge’s and Stross’s books that I mentioned at the start will likely enjoy this one too.

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