The Fourth Wall by Walter Jon Williams (Orbit, 2012) is a particularly good example of the Hollywood mystery with no real science fiction element. At best, it’s a near-future thriller in that some of the computer capabilities are just on the cusp of realisation. Or, perhaps, governments have already cracked this and not yet told us officially — it’s hard to say. Not unnaturally, the lead in this type of book must be played by an actor who finds him or herself pitched unceremoniously into the middle of a murder investigation and, whether out of mere curiosity or a fear that he or she might be the next victim, our hero(ine) sets out to discover whodunnit. On the way, we should get pleasing insights into the way Hollywood is supposed to work and, if we’re lucky, lots of good jokes. One of the best examples of a niche variation is the series character Marty Burns, penned by Jay Russell. This introduces a former child-star who has fallen on hard times and suddenly sees options for possible redemption. In this most recent book, Walter Jon Williams introduces Sean Makin, who hasn’t quite fallen through the profession and out through the crapper, but Celebrity Pitfighter is probably as low as you can get without having to resort to porn — the final resting place of all failed child-actors. In terms of style, this is also a throwback. More recently Mr Williams has been giving us rather more serious books. When he was younger, the Drake Maistral series applied a nice comedic touch to science fiction tropes. This does rather the same to the Dagmar Shaw series.
Yes, this is the third novel in a series except, unlike the first two, This Is Not a Game and Deep State, the narrative has been inverted. The earlier novels tell the stories with Dagmar Shaw as the primary point of view. This book adopts an innocent actor who’s recruited into one of her big idea plots and tells it from his point of view. To that extent, Dagmar only has speaking or walk-on status in the early stages as our hero takes time to work his way up the hierarchy so he can talk to her directly. To that extent, using the concept of The Fourth Wall as the title signals the author’s intention to shift the reader’s view of the action to a different window. It’s a Dagmar Shaw plot but deconstructed and reconstructed to give us the challenge of trying to guess exactly what she’s being paid to do this time.
The result is immense fun. We go through Sean Makin’s backstory and endure his humiliation in the cage. Then we have his crass agent almost torpedo his chance to impress Dagmar and the slow introduction of all the key players as the audition is safely navigated and the shooting begins. Naturally, the director has been using his influence to bring a lot of old friends back together again. It’s a chance for old memories to surface, not all of them welcome. Everything seems to be going well except someone in an SUV may be trying to run Sean down. Who can be sure in these days of falling driving standards. Anyway, the death of the person doing the wardrobe can’t be denied and this forces our hero’s thought processes into a higher gear. When someone else dies, it’s clear he may be a target and, in self-defence, he begins more seriously to try working out who might have a motive. As if this is not bad enough, he seems to be making progress through the rounds of pit fighting. Since a crazed killer may come at him at any moment, the fact he’s been receiving training in martial arts is a lucky break even if he does have to fight in cream cheese.
Interestingly, he’s starring in a film to be released in episodes like the old serials except, in this modern version, each individual pays to view a download or stream, and can vote on how the story is to develop. It’s somewhat like the idea underlying Clue (1985) in the cinema, It Could Be Any One Of Us by Alan Ayckbourn in the theatre, and many Dungeons and Dragons plots with multiple tracks through the narrative, which may or may not all arrive at the same ending or at multiple endings. The model adopted by Walter Jon Williams is the kinoautomat which was designed to have the film stop after a key scene and the audience vote how the film should proceed. In these days of interactivity it’s a nice idea and also somewhat subversive in that the revenue from all those watching the serial online goes directly to the producers and not through the owners of cinema chains. Cutting out the middleman is very big business when tens of millions may be viewing around the world.
Put all this together and you easily have the most enjoyable novel from Walter Jon Williams in years. This is not taking anything away from his more serious work. It’s just such a refreshing change to have something lightweight and frothy from our man. The Fourth Wall is unhesitatingly recommended as a humorous Hollywood mystery.
Deep State is a sequel to This Is Not A Game featuring Dagmar Shaw who still carries round post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the events in the first book. There’s a slight air of desperation about this effort from Walter Jon Williams. You can probably hear the pitch from either him or his agent to Orbit, the publishers. TINAG did good numbers. How about we run out a sequel? The bean counters would have rechecked the sales and, with their usual confidence, greenlighted the project. Except now Mr. Williams actually had to come up with a plot and write the book.
Let’s briefly recap. Dagmar and her loyal troops are a new breed of gamers that translate games into real world experiences, sending players gallivanting around the world, having fun while solving puzzles. This is Alternate Reality Gaming (ARG), a new way of involving people in games, and also a cool method of guerilla marketing. She makes money, albeit never quite enough to be comfortable, out of this business. TINAG works because Dagmar is caught up in a serious situation of great physical danger and then uses the network of friends to extricate herself. The second half of the book morphs into a slightly more conventional techno-thriller with the world’s financial system under attack. But, on balance, the entire book makes a good read that doesn’t ask too much for a suspension of disbelief. Such is the benefit of writing only a few years into the future. It makes the political and technological elements easier to keep credible. It also works because this is a “girl-in-peril” story. She’s reactive in trying to survive and we can take the white-knuckle ride along with her.
Deep State, however, sees the model inverted. We start off with one of Dagmar’s games to promote the new Bond film, Stunrunner which stars a new Scottish “actor” called Ian Attila Gordon — a pop star crossing over into the ranks of the thespians. Since most of the action was shot in Turkey, that’s where the gamers have been persuaded to come. This proves not the most auspicious moment since the military decide to mount another of their coups in defence of secularism and depose the elected government. Fortunately, this takeover is relatively peaceful, but Dagmar soon finds herself asked to engineer a counter-revolution. You may have noticed the Arab Spring. This has been a series of rebellions by the normally subdued Arab peoples against their autocratic leaders. With varying degrees of success and not a little violence, the period from December 2010 onwards has seen steady pressure on leaders to reform, starting with Tunisia and spreading through the majority of the Islamic states. Turkey has contrived to remain relatively stable as a democratic and nominally secular state, with Recep Erdogan elected Prime Minister three times and managing not to disturb the conservative military that holds itself out as the protector of secularism.
The US government, presumably having noticed how well Dagmar performed in defending the US dollar in TINAG, decides to employ her to induce a gentle rebellion in Turkey. Theoretically, this will nudge the Generals out of the way and allow elected officials back into power. For me, this immediately hits a credibility problem. When you’re trying to involve the obsessive gaming community in an ARG, they are predisposed to problem-solve and match that with real-world fun. But this plot assumes the same method can be scaled up to produce the equivalent of flash mobs on the streets in light-hearted protest. Frankly, I don’t begin to believe it. Recently, England experienced some rioting designed as shopping expeditions to pick up all the current must-have tokens of youth culture. There have been several prosecutions of people who tried to persuade groups to gather in different parts of the country by setting up Facebook pages. Not surprisingly, no-one actually responded to these invitations to break into shops. This is not to say flash mobs never appear and disappear on command in England. It’s just a more complicated process of social interaction to achieve the result than suggested in this book. Indeed, the idea of it happening in a country with military law and troops potentially willing to kill demonstrators is even more unlikely.
However, let’s overlook this critical difficulty and move on with the story. Dagmar is put in charge of a team based in the British airbase at Akrotiri in Cyprus. The first stages of the planned demonstrations seem to be working out well, but we then have an almost completely dead patch when almost nothing happens. Then there’s an attack on the base and one of the team is shot and killed. Dagmar is lucky to escape. Thereafter, the pace picks up again, but it all feels half-hearted. When the big technological hammer falls on the base, we get into real geek territory as the surviving members of the team try to produce a countermeasure based on the old MS-DOS. Frankly, I gave up reading this seriously and skipped forward until we got back into something more interesting. As the endgame comes into view, we find the US government backing away and Dagmar out to save the Western world all on her own. Well, with the assistance of Ian Attila Gordon, a new lover and a host of coincidences, incompetence by the “enemy” and lucky accidents.
So I ended up thinking Deep State was rather tiresome. The use of cloud sourcing to solve her own and then the nation’s problems hardly registers in this book. Instead, it’s a by-the-numbers thriller on inciting a counter-revolution to bring down a foreign government whose new leaders may turn against the US. I didn’t believe a single word of it as a how-to-plot a revolution manual and was thoroughly bored during the old skool techo bit. Insofar as there’s a mystery as to who the mole(s) is/are in Akrotiri, I didn’t give a hoot who it was. All the efforts to flesh out the characters of the possible suspects were boring and got in the way of progressing the action. Dagmar’s PTSD is a real feature early on and then she settles into the gunplay like a seasoned pro. Sadly, this is a book to “deep six”.
I’m a simple kinda guy. Except, of course, I’m not. But it’s fun to start off these reviews with something vaguely provocative, just to get everyone’s creative juices flowing. In a site headed, “Thinking about books” my approach to reading is “simple”. Eyes scan the letters, the brain engages and converts the letters into words, I attribute meaning to the words and we repeat until the end of the book. For me, the book should stand or fall on its own merits. It’s rather like going into a fine-dining restaurant and then being afraid to complain that the food tastes like shit because you heard the chef has the maximum number of Michelin stars. No matter what the reputation of the kitchen, you can go in on a Monday evening and find a sous chef asleep at the wheel.
So I’m starting off this review of The Green Leopard Plague, a collection by Walter Jon Williams (published by Night Shade Books), by talking about the third story, “The Last Ride of German Freddie”. When I was younger, I paid to see Gunfight at the OK Corral starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. This is my only source of knowledge about the events leading up to the notorious shootout. I therefore read this story with increasing bewilderment. Allowing for Hollywood being somewhat economical with the truth for the sake of dramatic effect, I had no recollection of Friedrich Nietzsche being involved. Worse, I have never read anything written by Nietzsche. For all I have dabbled with philosophy over the years, the notion of the Übermensch has never interested me enough to actually read about it. I was therefore somewhat irked upon arriving at the end of the story to discover that only those who can identify this as alternate history and know enough about Nietzsche’s writing to appreciate the pastiche, can appreciate the quality of this work. In my conception of reality, a story stands or falls on what is written and, to me, this is a boring reconstruction of events more than 130 years in an unreal past. Fiction is fiction, but it’s supposed to be entertaining or have some point that is obvious to all who read it. An author setting out to tell a story should not rely on the reader’s specialist knowledge to rescue what has been written.
Now I’ve got that off my chest, I can start again at the beginning of the book with the excellent “Daddy’s World”. This is a completely fascinating story about a child coming into self-awareness. In early years, there’s no conception of self. This only develops as a child begins to place him or herself in the environment and builds experience in affecting people and things. Identity is born when subjective power is grasped. The most pleasing aspect to this story is how power shifts between the father and son. As you might expect, a growing son can get a little rebellious but, sometimes, the father can reassert control. “Lethe” asks and answers some interesting questions about whether we benefit from being the sum of our life’s experiences. Early mistakes can colour lives with no chance of being able to recover. Unexpected loss and resulting grief are inconvenient, forcing us to adjust and change. So what would a society be like if death, for most practical purposes, was eliminated? Better still, suppose technology allowed you a fresh start. You could build a new body for yourself or you could edit your memories of the past and so sculpt a new emotional future for yourself. With such tools, we could eliminate suffering and live in a Hellish state of Nirvana. As a contrast, this idea of continuously redesigning your emotional life reaches a delightfully wry conclusion in “Millennium Party”.
I suppose the value of good science fiction is that it packages interesting ideas in a framework of adventure and wonder. We are bowled along by the drama and seduced by the cleverness of the concepts. In the best combinations, it’s only when we get to the end that we realise how the superficial led to the absorption of the profound. “The Green Leopard Plague” has a before-and-after structure where a future researcher is less than objective in assuming romance in the relationship of those responsible for releasing the plague. Continuing in the same universe as “Lethe”, we see how individuals lose their respect for life. In self-defence, we can kill others. In search of a better world, we may cause the death of millions. And once the economic and social ramifications of the original plague have been woven into the new social reality, even the idea of murder loses its horror. It’s simply an inconvenience to kill one body when another can be so easily constructed and a back-up of the mind of the deceased reloaded. A few days or weeks may be lost, but the victim can essentially be the same as before. Leading up to this, we have a fun romp called “The Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid” where the technologists are enabling the release of yet more of their experimental doodads. This time, the ship carrying the McGuffin sinks and the recovery team has to use its initiative to recover it. Except their competitors cut corners and sea water does the rest. This is easily the most enjoyable of the stories, closely followed by “Send Them Flowers” which is what you would politely call a romp.
This leaves us with two rather more serious YA stories which rehash the ideas of children growing up in virtual environments and being able to rebuild bodies to order. I thought “Incarnation Day” a good version of the “Daddy’s World” idea, but it took too long to arrive at the more interesting legal ramifications of the substitution. Finally, although a tighter piece of writing, “Pinocchio” didn’t have the most engaging lead character. It’s always difficult when fame attaches to someone young. For a while you can go with the flow but, sooner or later, you have to show actual talent to survive.
Overall, this is a book that both entertains and provokes thought — a slightly unusual combination in a world more attuned to superficialities.
As I wandered lonely in a crowd, I had this strange premonition I was not alone. I mused that everyone is potentially interconnected — within the six degrees of separation if you believe in the myths perpetuated by the reality of social networking sites. This suggested the need to reach out so that I could get this message to you.
I confess to having been a games player from being knee-high to a grasshopper. I grew up with a dice in my hand, later replaced by a pack of cards. In the seventies, I tarried briefly with D&D in its mainframe incarnations, having fun problem-solving and, when that did not work, hacking to find the shortcuts. Since then, I have been aware of the rpg and e-gaming phenomenon in a vague kind of way, but never with any commitment except on a couple of occasions when, faced by a new computer with games preloaded, I played for a while to see what I was missing. This brings me to This Is Not A Game by Walter Jon Williams who, like Charles Stross in Halting State, brings an interesting view of the possibilities for crime arising out of the game-playing empires.
This is an express train of a book which positively zips along the tracks with its engine thrumming and wheels hugging the rails with fanatical stickability. As with all books of this kind, we have to switch off the brain periodically to accept some of the plotting. That some elements are not exactly credible should not distract us from just having fun as the train teeters on the edge of a cliff before righting itself and barrelling on to the next suspension (bridge) of disbelief. We start off the journey in riot-torn Jakarta reeling under the collapse of its currency, and end up in LA with a final assault on the US dollar. It seems no economy in the world is strong enough to withstand the machinations of international wheeler-dealers in the mould of George Soros. With billions in the bank, these shadowy figures can destabilise a currency and walk away with billions more in profits. This is all fitted beautifully together with ideas about the uses and abuses of computer-trading systems and crowdsourcing as a means of harnessing the many to solve the problems of one (or perhaps that should be the other way round depending on who states the problem to be solved).
So in the more conventionally thrillerish opening we meet Dagmar who comes to see her own physical predicament in Jakarta as exactly comparable to a situation into which she might pitch a heroine in one of the alternative reality games she creates. How does someone who finds herself with limited cash survive and escape from a burning city? Fortunately, she has resources: a rich friend who might be able to buy intervention, and online players who might be able to turn their gaming skills to practical effect. Then, after her return to the US, we morph into a more mystery-oriented format as two of Dagmar’s oldest friends are murdered. She may be be next. Ultimately, it’s the obsessive gamesplayers who both save Dagmar and the world’s economies. Indeed, such is the overlap between the game and the real world, the players agree the end-product is one of the coolest games ever.
This is a hugely enjoyable read. While it has not convinced me I should try playing one of these games, I have a more healthy respect for the obvious care and inventiveness that must go into their creation. I am also seduced by the idea that gamers really do have the combined skills on display in this book. Having engaged in some crowdsourcing activities, I know how freely some people will give of their time and knowledge. Building on the open-source movement, it would be good if that same enthusiasm could be harnessed in a constructive way to solve more real-world problems.