‘Dagmar cleared her throat. The others turned to her. “I’m all four-oh-four,” she said. “Who is this freakin’ Sengor?”‘
If you’re not ‘all 404′ with this style of dialogue then you’re in the right demographic for Walter Jon Williams’ new novel, Deep State. Dagmar is Puppetmaster for Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) which she organizes through her company Great Big Idea. As the story opens we find Dagmar and her team in Turkey, running a game which is intended to build a market for the new ‘Bond’ film Stunrunner. Hundreds of players are following up her cryptic clues during a twelve day mystery tour around the major tourist spots; thousand of others are following the action and contributing ideas across the Internet.
To make an ARG work needs heavy infrastructure: mobile camera crews uploading video; augmented reality devices; tiny wireless-repeater routers which self-organize into a network; heavy-duty servers; high-bandwidth satellite links. The game needs all of these for the full immersive experience but why is the sponsor, Lincoln, so profligate with the systems he’s funding? It’s almost as if he wants them in place after the game has finished. This is a newly-brutal Turkey a few years out from now: the Turkish Deep State has finally stepped out of the shadows and into the driving seat. How different could it be running a state-of-the-art ARG vs. catalysing a people-power revolution? Dagmar and her team are about to be paid to find out.
Without giving away too much of the plot, the MacGuffin in this story is a device which can knock over TCP/IP networks. In a world where there are a large number of people who spend all their time trying to do just that, it’s quite an achievement to conceive of a new way, albeit it requires the resources of a super-power. Nevertheless, our heroes ingeniously find a way around the resulting catastrophe, the solution involves replatforming their applications onto MS-DOS and IPX. This will make more sense to those of you who met these archaic technologies first time round. In my view it would work just as long as the PSTN remained immune from all this high-tech hacking (the PSTN is probably the best-engineered network on the planet).
As I continued to read, with events in the Middle-East unfolding in parallel – allegedly powered by Facebook, Twitter and ubiquitous cell phones, I gradually began to warm to this novel. The plot is a slow-burner and while the insider view of Alternate Reality Gaming developed in the early sections was interesting enough I was rather put-off by the cast list of largely stock characters. Williams is, I think, rather fond of Dagmar and has given her an interesting back-story which periodically surfaces in her flashback-induced panic attacks. She elicits sympathy and we get some clues to her inner life. Her spook-sponsor Lincoln, perhaps the author’s alter ego, also has a solid feel about him. Most of the other characters, however, are drawn with less dimensionality and their interactions often come across as clunky, the wrong end of pulp. Still, this is not a book you read for insights into human nature; it’s a techno-thriller seeking dialogue with your inner geek.
Walter Jon Williams is an experienced writer and has thoroughly adopted Jane Austen’s advice to write about what you know. He has done his research and has written a page-turning, even-paced thriller which sustains conviction (just about!) throughout. It’s recommended, particularly for those downtime moments when the server indeed serves up nothing but 404s.
Note: To save you googling as you hit the last page, let me inform you that in 1453 the Christian Byzantines at Constantinople finally fell to the Islamic Ottoman Empire. I guess that’s one precedent.