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Deep State by Walter Jon Williams

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.

Walter Jon Williams with the flower showing his heart is taken

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”.

For reviews of other books by Walter Jon Williams, see This Is Not A Game, The Fourth Wall, and The Green Leopard Plague.

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