Readers and gamers alike will be well served by two refreshing science fiction novels that are both exciting and thought provoking.
Whether you’re looking for a trippy walk through the American Pacific Northwest or a Modern Warfare-esque tromp through a dystopian hellscape is up to you. The only question is this: Are you playing?
Woodpeckers photographed decades after they are thought to have gone extinct. A game in an arcade that suddenly has a level that no one has ever seen before. Videos of violent crimes that never actually happened. These are the hallmarks of the alternate reality game Rabbits, known by its players as just “the game.” Some think the game was created by spy agencies as a way to find new recruits. Others think the game is far older and that it has been going on for centuries. But there are two things that all who know about Rabbits can agree on. First: You don’t talk about the details of Rabbits, ever. Especially with outsiders. If you do, things will go poorly for you. Second: Playing the game, nevermind winning, will change your life.
K (yes, it’s short for something, but don’t ask what) learns this firsthand on an otherwise normal Seattle night. After giving his regular presentation about the history of the game at a local arcade, he is approached by eccentric billionaire (and rumored Rabbits champion) Alan Scarpio. Over rhubarb pie and coffee, Scarpio tells K that there’s something wrong with the game—something that Scarpio needs K’s help to fix before the next iteration of the game begins. K is skeptical at first, but when Scarpio disappears soon after their late-night meeting, K is pulled into a warren of intrigue and danger that will change not just K’s life, but reality itself.
Set in the same world as his pseudo-documentary podcast of the same name, Terry Miles’ debut novel, Rabbits, is all about reality: discrepancies, changes and patterns. Or, more precisely, it’s about the moments of unreality that we tend to shake off, like a store we swore closed a year ago that’s actually still open or a movie we remember watching as children that never actually existed. Miles masterfully evokes this sense of unreality by thoroughly grounding his novel in a sense of place. His depictions of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest are spot on, so tangible that you can nearly feel the constant drizzle and smell the roasting coffee. From his description of the Capitol Hill neighborhood to his exploration of the outer neighborhoods of the cloudy city, reading Rabbits feels like you are walking in step with K for every page of the novel.
That is, until the changes start. Miles slowly chips away the steady ground he’s built for you until it feels as if you are about to step into a sinkhole or a well where gravity has been reversed. The effect is so unsettling that it will leave you looking for those discrepancies—in a sense, playing your own game of Rabbits—long after Rabbits is over.
Where Rabbits deals with the breakdown of reality, Nicole Kornher-Stace’s Firebreak is about the opposite: a game meant to shape our perceptions of reality. The novel's heroine, Mal, lives in a world where the implants she uses to stream virtual reality games are free, but water is a tightly rationed commodity you have to pay for ounce by precious ounce. It’s a world where refugees from a never-ending war live eight or more people to a room, each working three jobs merely to scrape by on instant noodles and soda.
So when a mysterious benefactor offers to sponsor Mal's VR stream of the war game SecOps for five gallons of water a week, it’s hard to say no. But the sponsor has a strange request: She wants Mal to prioritize capturing in-game close-ups of SecOps’ superstar nonplayer characters (NPCs). Modeled on real supersoldiers grown in vats by Stellaxis, the corporation that runs both Mal’s city and SecOps, the NPCs are cultural icons. But the sponsor claims that the story everyone has been fed about the super soldiers is a lie: The soldiers weren’t grown in vats at all. They were orphaned children, just like Mal, who were turned into soldiers when it was clear that they wouldn’t be missed. As the evidence for the strange theory piles up, Mal realizes her sponsor's claim wasn’t so far-fetched after all, and she will have to risk everything in order to make things right.
On the surface, Firebreak may seem familiar. A book about virtual reality in a war-torn corporate dystopia? It’s been done. But after just a few pages in, it’s clear that Kornher-Stace’s novel breaks the mold. Part Snow Crash, part spy novel, part Twitch stream, Firebreak raises serious questions about the power of corporations and the potential to shape public sentiment through virtual reality. Where corporations rule, necessities are commoditized to control the public. Stellaxis, for example, controls the water supply so tightly that even trying to purify rainwater for personal consumption can get you fined or worse.
The level of worker and consumer regulation portrayed is chilling, but it comes nowhere near Kornher-Stace’s terrifying, imaginative depiction of the intersection between war propaganda and VR gaming. In this world, virtual reality games are used to maintain and grow support for a war that has decimated entire cities and left untold thousands of children orphaned. The result is both exhilarating and deeply disturbing, as it shines a light on how easy it can be to manipulate people through the media they consume.