What, two reprints in two days …? No, I’m not going back to that daily schedule, but I was looking for something else and I came upon this old review of This Is Not A Game by Walter Jon Williams, and thought, well, why not? The review first appeared in Vector 260, Summer 2009.

this is notCharlie Ruff has a problem. There’s a little over $12 billion in his secret bank account in the Cayman Islands. Exactly why this sort of wealth should be a problem is not revealed until two-thirds of the way through the novel, though there are plenty of clues scattered about. Enough clues, certainly, that when the revelation finally comes it is with the satisfaction of all the pieces falling into place, because this is an expertly plotted near-future thriller.

Walter Jon Williams has a problem. Every so often he will turn out a gem of a novel that captures the zeitgeist, as he did, for instance, with Hardwired back in the days when cyberpunk was still fresh and exciting, and as he does to a lesser extent with this novel. Yet he has never really had the critical acclaim or attention that such works would seem to merit. In part this is surely because the occasional gems are punctuated by too many that feel routine, unengaged. If you are trying for the zeitgeist and miss, the result can feel as opportunistic as his recent space operas. In part, also, it is because he is so efficient at constructing plots; his books start in top gear and rush you along at a breathless pace. By the end you are exhausted and exhilarated by the ride, delighted at the way everything slots neatly in place, but you’ll hardly remember a character or a vivid scene or a well-turned phrase because even if they are there you whiz past too quickly to notice.

There is an ingenious and attractive idea embedded in This Is Not A Game, one that will, I suspect, keep this novel close to the hearts of many readers. There is a game going on, one in which the players solve clues that are on line or contained in carefully staged events, a game that attracts hundreds of thousands of players from across the globe who must co-operate, share insights, lend their expertise to the common cause, in order to win through to the climax. When Dagmar the game’s designer finds herself trapped in Jakarta when the economy collapses, the army loses control and mayhem is loosed upon the city, she turns to this network of game players for help. It’s a little like the way SETI, for instance, will use a network of home computers at rest to provide the sort of computing power that would normally be way beyond its means; here all the myriad game players become part of a thrilling real-life enterprise. It also has the rather appealing effect of turning geeks into real-life heroes.

Having been rescued by this common enterprise in the superbly dramatic opening section of the novel, Dagmar calls upon the massed power of geekdom again when one of her best friends is gunned down in front of her by a Russian assassin. And this is where Charlie’s billions come in.

Dagmar, Charlie, Austin and BJ were friends at university, they met through a shared fascination with gaming, and Dagmar and BJ were lovers for a while. After university, Austin became a financier, particularly successful at providing start-up funds for high-tech companies. Charlie and BJ started a software company, but their first product, a programme for playing the stock market, was not immediately successful and the company crashed. Charlie managed to find mysterious foreign backers and rescued the business, but BJ was forced out and now works in a dead-end job in an on-line call centre. Dagmar tried her hand at writing science fiction for a while, but now serves as puppetmaster for the futuristic games run by one of Charlie’s off-shoot companies.

Such is the situation when assassins from the Russian mafia, would-be super spies, love-lorn Indian actors, and devastating explosions are brought into play. In many ways this is a routine thriller, and the villain of the piece is pretty obvious. (In fact the villain is so obvious that for a long time I thought Williams was playing a double bluff, which made it something of a surprise when I realised, oh, it was so-and-so after all.) But Williams orchestrates the clues, the dramas, the betrayals, the confrontations, with considerable flair. And the tribe of on-line detectives deployed in solving the puzzle (a fair number of whom refuse to believe that this is not a game) give the whole enterprise a fresh edge, and a self-referential gloss that makes the whole thing seem cleverer than it really is. At the end of it all, after the twists and revelations and hair’s breadth escapes, you hardly notice that, with the exception of Dagmar, there isn’t that much characterisation going on, and the plot doesn’t really make much sense. You’re just glad you have been along for the ride.

I don’t imagine that This Is Not A Game is going to lift Walter Jon Williams into the critical stratosphere, but it should certainly win him yet more new fans among those who relish a well told, well constructed and gripping thriller.