This is Not a Game (Walter Jon Williams 2009)

This is not a Game

This is a novel that I read after learning of its unusual style. The plot revolves around Dagmar Shaw, who works for alternate reality game (ARG) company Great Big Idea, run by former college buddy Charlie  and financed by another college, Austin. After Austin is murdered, Dagmar uses the players of her alternate reality to find the killer by writing Austin’s death into the game, taking advantage of the internet’s hive mind. In the process she reunites with another college buddy and former co-worker BJ. In the process of the investigation she begins to suspect that Charlie is hiding a few secrets of his own.

The work is unique in that it frequently alternates between the action in the real world, and the cyber world. The real world is seen primarily from Dagmar’s point of view, with a handful also shown from the point of view of ARG player Joe Clever, real name Andy after he gets roped into the real world side of the game. I had reservations about the use of Joe Clever’s segments since they are very infrequent and generally don’t provide a whole lot to the plot. The author could have cut them out completely and the story wouldn’t be any different. The real draw to this novel are the segments taking place in the cyber world, told through a series of forum posts by random strangers known only by their user handles. I liked how well it integrated itself with the main action. I’ve seen a few novels which are told exclusively through emails, and letters and the like, falling under the epistolary novel banner. This is good, but the format can get tiring fast. I like this primarily because it isn’t an epistolary novel, despite the fact the forum posts would almost certainly look at home in one. It uses a different form of storytelling but doesn’t overuse it.

In terms of characters the story was bit underwhelming. Dagmar, at times, seemed a bit too bitchy for my liking. Not bitchy to the point where she would be an antagonist in another story but certainly enough to rub me the wrong way when I read her segments. The two main supporting characters, Charlie and BJ are nice and well rounded, with a lot of hidden depths. The twist with BJ near the end seemed reasonably well foreshadowed. There were a few bit characters, like the previously mentioned Joe Clever, who seem a bit out of place in the real world narrative. However the most ludicrous example is Siyed Prasad, a man with whom Dagmar once had an affair and is now obsessed with her despite the fact he is married. He literally serves no purpose but comedy relief, and even as the interactions with him continue he still doesn’t integrate himself into the main plot that well. Overall, characterisation is a bit of a weak area for the novel.

In terms of the plot itself and its structure, the segment at the beginning where Dagmar uses the players of the ARG to escape  Jakarta is confusing, since the main plot doesn’t seem to begin until after Dagmar arrives back home and Austin is murdered. Even now I can’t put together how it is connected the main plot, and I see it as like a prologue. Problem is, it goes on an awfully long time for a prologue. Its only purpose seems to be establishing the role of the ARG players’ hive mind. Considering how long it takes for the main plot to kick off, I can’t help but feel like the escape from Jakarta could have been streamlined somehow. To be honest  it felt like the writer didn’t know what the main plot was going to be until over a hundred pages in. This was the weakest aspect of the novel, and dampened what would otherwise have been an enjoyable reading experience.

As a whole the book had both weak and strong elements. I liked the style of the narrative a great deal and in terms of the technical aspects of the writing, I got exactly what I expected and wasn’t disappointed. However the novel is far from perfect. The characters are weak, and sometimes unnecessary. The plot is poorly structured and confusing at times. The basis for which I would recommend this novel would only be for reference purposes. In other words, if you were writing a story heavily involving online communication but didn’t want to go into full epistolary novel mode, then this novel is an interesting read. For more casual readers I would advise giving it a miss unless you are interested in Alternate Reality Games.

SCORE: 3/5

IN A WORD: CONFUSING

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