Walter Jon Williams’ This Is Not a Game is precisely the sort of book that I normally hate. It’s set in a techno-geeky world, and it involves a lot of tech-obsessed people doing things with ARGs (”alternate reality games” — those little promo things like I Love Bees) and botnets and what-not. It’s like the sort of thing Cory Doctorow would write, SF straightline extrapolating today’s trends for like two years.

But I didn’t hate it, for two reasons.

The first reason is that Williams is a vastly better writer than Doctorow. Doctorow writes tooth-grindingly bad prose, and Williams is a fine stylist. So even as he’s telling a Doctorovian story, Williams is doing it better than Doctorow could. I even laughed at some forum post exchanges, where Doctorow’s attempts at that would make me cringe.

But the second reason is that, upon reflection (and despite the tag I stuck on this entry), Williams isn’t writing science fiction at all. The book seems science fictional, and ten years ago it would have been wild-eyed crazy speculation; but as far as I can tell, every single thing in it is basically real today. I mean, the events of the plot haven’t happened, and the companies named in it don’t exist, but they basically could.

(There’s a bit of an exception, in that the book depends on markets behaving in a way that they pretty much don’t behave in the real world. But you can handwave that by noting that lots of people — including lots of highly paid people on Wall Street — believe that markets do work that way. So it’s not necessarily fantastic by intent.)

For whatever reason, looking at this as a mainstream thriller that happens to be set in the modern world makes it a lot better. I don’t know if this is just a weird psychological quirk of mine; if it’s that I’m okay with a novel of the real world dating in real time, in a way that I’m not quite with SF; or if there’s something else to it. (Maybe it’s that it doesn’t imply cult-like devotion to technological advancement? Maybe that it doesn’t make you think the writer is convinced he has his finger on the pulse of change and is an insufferable twit? Maybe these things actually qualify as “weird psychological quirk,” upon reflection?)

So anyway, if you like Cory Doctorow, you’ll probably love this. If you don’t like Doctorow, but have liked other Williams novels (I’ve only read his excellent Aristoi), don’t be scared away by Doctorow-hatred.


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