~Post by Joe T.
With the release of Neal Stephenson’s Reamde (pronounced, I’m pretty sure, as “Read Me”), I’ve noticed a certain trend amongst the speculative fiction writers I’ve grown to enjoy the most: a preoccupation with World of Warcraft and other massive multiplayer online role playing games (or MMOs from this point onwards). These writers are wrestling with what these virtual worlds may have in store for us and NOT in that condescending “our children spend all their time in the basement not interacting with the real world/Wall-E” kind of way.
Last year, Boing Boing editor and all around fantastic writer Cory Doctorow (Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town is the most adorable book I’ve read about a character whose mother is a washing machine and whose father is a mountain) tackled the subject with his novel For The Win. The take-away quote from the book is: “…eight of the largest economies in the world are not countries, they’re games, issuing their own currency, running their own fiscal policies, and setting their own labor laws.” This is a great starting point for the three novels that I’m discussing.
For The Win is a spiritual successor to Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age in which a computer device/program/mother box/I Phone/MMO helps to elevate a third world citizen into an intellectual/economic power. It also chronicles a labor war between the owners of a World of Warcraft stand-in and the sweatshop “gold farmers” who make their living along the margins of the game. It is one part economics lesson, one part union history, and two parts awesome fun.
On the other hand, Ken MacLeod, an author I’ve never read before but am interested in reading more of, has a new novel, The Restoration Game that seems less “Sci-Fi” than his previous works but may be the most “Sci-Fi” of the books at hand. It’s part thriller, part treatise on the fall of the Soviet Union, and part Philip K. Dick mindtrip. This book has the least emphasis upon the MMO than the other two books, but it is a plot point that is used in an interesting way, especially as it was written before the uprisings in the Middle East; it exists as a forum for the revolutionaries to gather together and organize away from the spying eyes of the government. I enjoyed this book more than I expected and read it all in one sitting. I’m excited about reading other books by this Scottish fellow (who I imagine sitting in a bar and having AWESOME conversations with Charles Stross and Grant Morrison.)
And that brings us to Reamde, the newest novel by Neal Stephenson. I was not expecting a new book from him this year when I became one of like 10 people in the country to recieve a bound galley of his book way back in May. (*insert image of girls fainting and screaming from Beatlemania*) Over a single weekend, I fought off my friends’ attempt to steal it, my roommmates’ attempts to hang out and socialize, and my body’s attempts to sleep and eat food. After three days, numerous gin and tonics, and massive amounts of chips and salsa, I knocked out the 1200 page (in galley form), 2 ton (it was that big) book and, well….
After ten years of delving into the Restoration Era, showing how the modern/computer world came into existence (The Baroque Cycle), and exploring alternate realities, exposing the banality of modern life (Anathem), Stephenson returns to the “future now” that he established with Cryptonomicon. A Techno Thriller in Sci-Fi clothing, Stephenson seems to treat computer tech in the same fetishistic tones that Clancy does weaponry; it’s like a heist flick that involves MMOs, Russian mobsters, Al-Qaeda terrorists, and good old American love for the second amendment. If Doctorow and MacLeod are showing a positive implementation of MMOs, the original optimist gives us money laundering, kidnapping, and murder.
The future that William Gibson predicted for us way back with his novel Neuromancer never came to pass. It turns out, however, that Avatars do exist in places as disparate as Second Life (does anyone actually use that?) and Lord of the Rings Online (where I have been known to haunt for a second or two being the Tolkien scholar that I am) and “Cyberspace” turns out to be just a bit less awesome, a little bit more sordid, and a little bit more sweet than we had any idea of knowing way back in the Apple IIe days of 1984.
(This blog post was written at Casino El Camino, one of the best bars in Austin and home to some the best burgers in town as well.)