Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand

Deep State Deep State
by Walter Jon Williams

Supplied for review by Hachette New Zealand

Reviewed By: Alan Robson

Deep State is the sequel to Walter Jon Williams' earlier novel This Is Not A Game. Like the first book it concerns itself with an exploration of how the power of the internet can be used to make changes to the way the world works.

Dagmar Shaw is running an Augmented Reality Game in Turkey to promote the latest James Bond film. Turkey has recently been taken over by a military junta and Dagmar is less than happy about the political and social realities of life in the new Turkey. But she's being well paid, a job is a job and the ins and outs of Turkish politics are not really her business. She's just there to run a game.

The game is a resounding commercial, artistic and organisational success. Hundreds of thousands of people (mainly in Turkey, but also in the wider world) have come together, pooling their skills and knowledge to solve the problems that the game presents.

After the game finishes, Dagmar is approached by one of its sponsors who turns out to be a spook employed by some anonymous branch of the American government. He wants Dagmar to use her game design skills and the powerful internet infrastructure that she's developed in Turkey to organise and promote a grass roots level revolt against the junta.

Working from a British RAF station in Cyprus, Dagmar and her colleagues set up a new game specifically for the purpose of bringing down a government. She organises flash crowds to form and protest in places where it's hard for the police to respond quickly, and then melt away before the authorities can react. It all starts well, and the regime is looking more and more foolish and impotent as reports of the demonstrations spread around the world.

Then, much to Dagmar's satisfaction, spontaneous demonstrations that are nothing to do with her organisation start to happen. The revolution is becoming a genuinely grass roots one. The authorities, goaded beyond endurance, deploy a secret weapon that effectively shuts down the internet...

There's a lot going on in this novel. In our world, the power of the people to topple regimes has been demonstrated again and again. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the current unrest in the middle east, all these things prove that the essential idea behind the novel is not an unreasonable one (though personally I find it morally suspect, to say the least). The very clever use that the novel's protagonists make of the internet to facilitate and organise and coordinate things that might otherwise remain just isolated and unimportant incidents is a brilliant touch, and from this point of view the novel is a magnificent success.

Other aspects, however, are less successful. Williams tries hard to explain the details of the technology his protagonists use, and he makes a complete mess of it. Since most people regard computers and the internet as magic black boxes, and technical jargon as the equivalent of a magic spell, I suspect this probably doesn't matter much to the majority of his audience. Only the computer professionals will wince at his enormous technical blunders. But nevertheless, those blunders are there. The novel would be a lot stronger without the pages of obfuscated and meaningless gobbledegook that he inflicts on us. It would also be a lot shorter, and that too would be a strength rather than a weakness.

The novel is structurally flawed as well. The last two or three chapters descend into very silly melodrama -- interminable chase scenes, guns go bang, all for no very good reason. Replacing the last three chapters with three pages would again make the story much stronger. And shorter...

Flawed though the novel is, the central idea is intriguing and well managed and the strength of that idea in conjunction with the interesting personal lives of the protagonists makes this an enjoyable and thought-provoking book.

But I do recommend that you stop reading it round about the time Dagmar goes to Uzbekistan. Everything from that point onwards is a waste of paper and ink.

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