Review: Walter Jon Williams warns that This Is Not a Game

If Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling and Charles Stross know what's good for them, they'll check their residences for eavesdropping devices. Laser beams bouncing off their windowpanes, keyboard intercepts, video cameras in their shower stalls. Who might lurk behind such industrial/literary espionage? Walter Jon Williams, that's who.

Oh, not that Williams really needs to steal ideas from these fellows. He's much too talented and innovative on his own merits for that, as a prior string of some two dozen outstanding books will attest. But Williams could be dipping into the lives of his peers just to mess with their heads. The likelihood of that scenario is based on how masterfully and outrageously Williams' latest novel, This Is Not a Game: A Novel (Orbit, $24.99), plays the five-minutes-into-the-future SF game in which Doctorow, Sterling and Stross rank so highly.

Dagmar Shaw is our main protagonist in this novel, which combines droll satire, cyber-fu knowingness, ingenious extrapolation, social commentary and techno-thriller suspense. A washed-up fantasy writer, Dagmar designs ARGs--Alternate Reality Games--at the behest of her billionaire boss, Charlie Ruff. But the latest ARG, The Long Night of Brianna Hall, is manifesting some strange real-world repercussions. When people around Dagmar start dying, she realizes that more is at stake than just a paycheck derived through fantasy role-playing.

Williams' dialogue is razor-sharp, his plotting breakneck, his eye for trends keen and his empathy with his characters deep. He allots equal time to the emotional development of Dagmar and the book's conceptual brain candy. She emerges from this tale changed, but with her core values reinforced. A reluctant hero for our era, she proves that wit and geekdom trump brute force and greed.

Williams pays homage to an older generation of writers as well. The "multimedia" part of the book recalls the 1970s masterpieces of John Brunner. There's a reference to Roger Zelazny, and indeed Charlie Ruff resembles one of Zelazny's behind-the-scenes godlings. Finally, there's Heinlein. Charlie's reading Heinlein's Double Star for fun, and Dagmar coins the acronym TINAG after the book's title, ineluctably reminding us of TANSTAAFL. Whether Williams' coinage will enter the genre lexicon only time will tell.

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