Wednesday, December 30, 2009

This Is Not a Game by Walter Jon Williams

And then, in front of that audience, she found herself telling that story, about BJ and Austin and Charlie, and the treacherous, devious worlds they had created, when they were all young, and games were all they knew of life.

That's how this immensely satisfying, utterly convincing novel ends, a few moments or months after tomorrow, in a world almost identical to our own. I read it over ten months ago -- back in mid-February, just before it was published -- and I'm sorry that I didn't manage to write about it then, when it might have done a little good.

In any case, this was the new novel from Walter Jon Williams in 2009. And if you know anything about Williams -- if you've read his sophisticated and witty Drake Maijstral novels; or Aristoi, the great lost SF novel of the early '90s; or the two magnificent far-future science fantasies Metropolitan and City on Fire; or incredible short stories like "Prayers On the Wind" -- you know that he's one of the best writers in the speculative fiction field, as consistently inventive and exciting and as compelling a storyteller as anyone. If you haven't read Williams yet, go grab whichever of those earlier books sounds the most intriguing -- or Days of Atonement, one of the best near-future police-procedurals ever written, or the great cyberpunk novel Hardwired, can get this book, which is still available, and practically new.

It's another gripping tale of the bleedingly near future, closest in tone and content to Charles Stross's Halting State. But the games in Not a Game aren't the computer sort -- they're ARGs, artificial reality games, in which players scour the real world and the Internet for clues, and work both with and against each other in their millions to ferret out all of the secrets and clues of a game.

This Is Not a Game focuses on a small group of friends who have known each other for a long time. As always happens, some have succeeded, some have barely survived, and some are in the middle -- like Dagmar, the producer of ARGs who is at the center of the book. Not a Game opens with a semi-separate novella-length section, in which Dagmar is trapped by civil unrest in Jakarta, her life in danger, as all the foreigners flee as quickly as they can. In the longer main section of the novel, she's back in the US, ready to work on a new game, when danger returns to her life in a more complicated way -- and she has to get to the bottom of whatever's going on using the tools she knows best.

This Is Not a Game has one of the best subtitles I've seen in many years -- "A Novel of Greed, Betrayal, and Social Networking" -- and that's a good description of this novel. It's a compelling story about the kind of people that have been driving the future for the last generation, and what might be next; a thriller on both a conceptual SFnal level as well as in its plotting. As always, Williams tells a story that keeps the pages turning while creating real, rounded characters in a deeply believable world -- he's just one of the best out there at the SF game.

1 comment:

Laurence MacNaughton said...

Walter Jon Williams seems like a really nice guy, too. I asked him 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 )

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