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Onyx reviews: This is Not a Game by Walter Jon Williams

The geeks shall inherit the earth.

This is Not a Game is a book for all those geeks who spent their university years playing Dungeons & Dragons and who are now addicted to online role-playing games, Second Life and Facebook.

It's also a finely crafted technothriller that doesn't sacrifice characterization for plot, but manages to find the perfect balance between the two. In retrospect, the plotting is even more skillful and adept than one might realized at first blush. In fact, it's as carefully constructed as the ARGs (alternate reality games) that are central to the story.

Dagmar Shaw's title is Executive Producer, but she thinks of herself as the puppet master. She creates ARGs for Great Big Idea that are meant to help cross promote other products—a new high-tech cell phone, for example. These games extend beyond the normal confines of other online adventures. Players who sign up for them receive phone calls, text messages and e-mails containing clues to help them solve puzzles. Sometimes they are even sent on missions away from the computer, to pick up and deliver a package, for example, or to uncover a scrap of graffiti in a public place. They congregate at internet forums to exchange information and brag about their accomplishments.

Act I of the book has Dagmar in Indonesia at the end of the wrap of a highly successful ARG. Tens of millions of people witnessed the culmination of this game in Bangalore. However, Dagmar's travel plans come to a crashing halt along with the Indonesian currency, which has suddenly lost all of its value. She has only $180, her cell phone and computer, and plane tickets for a flight that seems unlikely to materialize any time soon since the city is going up in flames, anti-Chinese rioters are taking to the streets, and armed security guards are protecting her hotel against looters.

Dagmar isn't without resources, though. Her longtime friend Charlie (also her boss) has become very wealthy through his software businesses, and he promises to hire some mercenaries to zip over, pluck her from the hotel roof, and return her to safety. This fly-by-night exploit goes fubar before it ever gets off the ground, so Dagmar executes Plan B. Her audience, several million strong, consists of resourceful problem solvers, so she assigns them the task of finding a way to get her out of Indonesia alive. 

The book's title originates in the statement the discussion board moderator reiterates when spreading the news of Dagmar's plight. It calls to mind the Magritte painting of a pipe that is titled (in French) This is Not a Pipe, illuminating the difference between reality and a depiction of reality. Though many are skeptical, it doesn't matter to the players whether it is real or not. To them it's simply another puzzle to solve, and they concoct an ad hoc scheme that puts the mercenaries, with all their funding and access to equipment, to shame.

Act I is, in essence, a standalone set piece, almost an extended prolog that establishes the rules for the main part of the novel, but which ultimately turns out to contain a major clue to what’s really going on in the story. Act II is built around a murder, the shooting of one of Dagmar's oldest friends, someone who she used to play adventure games with in university. They were four musketeers: Dagmar, Charlie, BJ and Austin, and their early interest in game playing evolved into their individual careers. There have been some fallings out over the years—BJ was ousted from the company that he and Charlie started, the one that made Charlie rich and left BJ working multiple odd jobs to keep afloat.

One overzealous fan who likes to spy on Great Big Idea in hopes of getting inside information about the current game (he isn't above dumpster diving or using surveillance gear to listen in on strategy meetings) captures the murder on video and uploads it to the Internet, thinking that it's part of the game. When the police investigation stalls, Dagmar recalls her Indonesian experience and enlists the help of the players to identify the killer. It's an instance of massively parallel computing. The police don't have the manpower to call up every hotel and motel in the Los Angeles to see if a certain individual has stayed there, but Dagmar does. Her players divide up the list of hotels and, by sheer brute force, track the man down.

The line blurs between where the game ends and where reality begins as Dagmar continues to enlist the help of her players, building the murder into the plot of the current adventure. However, the killer isn't above playing the same game, and there will be more deaths before the final solution is achieved. What is at stake proves to be greater than a few lives, though. The stability of the entire planet is at risk.

Williams brilliantly captures the world of online communications, especially the various persona who frequent message boards, and the types of on-topic and off-topic communications that take place there. There are flame wars and posturing, outcasts and cliques, and yet this dysfunctional group of people, who seem to have little relationship to the real world outside of their computers, works well together when they put their minds to solving problems. 

The storyline of This is Not a Game proves to be extremely intricate, and it never seems like the ultimate objective is a maguffin. The possibility that something like what Williams postulates could happen is only slightly beyond the realm of modern technology. Unlike many technothrillers, this book is firmly established in the realities of the present. There are no magic bullets or situations where people with ordinary skills attain extraordinary results. Instead it is a case of distributed computing, many people with many talents, all working toward a common goal.

All this is done in way that should not alienate non-technical readers, although anyone who revels in the online world will delight in the exploits of these characters. And they're real characters, developed through their actions and their exchanges and their histories. Too often, thrillers pay short shrift to characterization, but such is not the case here.

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