Thursday, July 26, 2012

Omnitopia Dawn

The quick and dirty: 
Rating: 3 stars
Length: Solidly long (381 pages)
Publication: August 3, 2010 from Daw Books
Premise: Dev Logan is the mastermind behind Omnitopia, one of the most popular online games in the world. It already provides more player universes than any other company, but there's a big expansion in three days and the company is poised to hit the button and go live. The system is vulnerable in that window because of the updates, and rivals are trying to send in hackers to destroy the system. Dev and his team are good, but superior numbers draw closer and closer, even as the system itself starts reacting in unpredictable ways.
Warnings: People being mean to each other? There's a very brief mention of past pedophilia being hidden in one of the Microcosms, but there's nothing nasty front-and center here.
Recommendation: If you're into online gaming of any sort, this one is definitely worth a look, both for the humor about the existing culture and the speculation about what it could be. If you're not....the early parts move slowly, but the middle is quite good once it takes off, so it depends on how much patience you have this week.

What gives this one a tantalizing breath of life: 

Diane Duane builds this book on speculation about the next generation of massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs) and how people react to them. Dev Logan is the creator of Omnitopia, one of the most successful of those games. Its players keep coming back because they can play on one of thousands of worlds, some as large as the earth and other much smaller and created by fellow players; there's also the intriguing chance that anyone can be knighted and selected to create his or her own Microcosm from the raw building blocks of codes. Some players choose to fight each other for gold and glory, but others want to use new sensory technology to eat virtual food, or code new species that can interact with players. The game offers near-infinite choices and worlds according to Dev's dream of player freedom, and a mysterious new expansion is about to roll out. Not everyone likes Omnitopia's success, however, and Dev's enemies are massing for an attack to take down the system and destroy the company. The conflict could easily seem dry, that of one gaming company trying to survive in a competitive field, but the employees and players are all part of a culture that cherishes creativity and happiness.

The gamers outside the company really seem true to that culture, especially in terms of obsession. Some of them would be perfectly at home in World of Warcraft (which bears a passing resemblance to the initial framework of Omnitopia), while others just cover the spectrum from dilettantes to people who very nearly live in the game. Some want to re-enact the attempted invasion of the Spanish Armada over and over again to study the effects of winds and currents, while others want to participate in never-ending wars to pay for magical gear. Everyone wants to be online as much as possible, and people spend hours of their lives addicted to a game that seems more fulfilling than anything on the table now. The idea of letting players earn real-money royalties on Microcosms that they create adds another layer of engagement; this whole element of the story has been thought through quite well, and I would have loved to see more extended sequences of how the culture changes in different gaming areas.

Once the novel hits its stride, the imagery really starts to steal the show. Dev goes down into the deepest layers of code, the ones that only one other company employee can access, and sees the code displaying as a forest shaped to his visualization. The base code is the floor, each Macrocosm or Microcosm is a tree, and the exact function of each part shapes the branches. He lets the scene take on varying levels of normal reality, from raw code-strands to ordinary trees that only show the code on close examination-- all of this makes the code easier to picture and understand away from the normal scenes of letters flickering down a screen. The whole thing becomes even more vivid when the Omnitopia employees have to defend against hackers. In the real world they're sitting in chairs, but in the game they're anything from Martian warriors to griffins using teeth and claws to hold the enemies back from the trees that hold the data and money and worlds that are so precious. That touch plays up the human desire to be creative even in dangerous situations, blending the fantasy that attracts players into the narrative itself.

Those action sequences shine, evoking epic fantasy battles from all eras in addition to archetypes about the dark forces pouring over the horizon and trying to destroy the tree of life, the roots of the world. These hit the best of both worlds, catching the keen edge of combat and then sliding back into plans to track the hackers' IP addresses and sue any internet providers caught abetting the attempt. They also provide a good platform for the book's philosophy, which has a lot of interesting things to say about creativity and fairness and fantasies. Dev's personal philosophy can get a little heavy-handed in places when he's trying to explain it to people, but the quieter ideas about why people dream, and what it means to regret not having the time to pursue one dream amid many, flow through and provide a thematic structure instead of just sitting on the page as dead-end sermons. Critics outside the company sneer at the employees for drinking the Kool-aid, but those employees truly do see their work as fun and see the opportunity to play as worthwhile in a way that makes other companies underestimate Omnitopia.

The red pen: 

The good parts of this book are great, but it simply takes too long to get to them because the detail is just distributed oddly. It makes sense to focus on corporate structure and boardroom planning when the main character is a CEO-- unfortunately, some of the outlying details make the story drag. Showing how the Omnitopia offices are designed helps illustrate the corporate structure, just as showing some of the opposition offices emphasizes how very different Omnitopia is in its loose hierarchy and relaxed culture. Lingering for pages on end about every detail of lighting and cubicle design in different offices, on the other hand, comes off as a clumsy attempt to drive home how creative and nice Dev is in comparison to Phil, his former friend and business partner. Given that he's shown to be a good person in so many other ways, it's simply not necessary to hear about his flexibly planned offices in contrast to his rival Phil's collection of cubicles.

The same issue continues in the contrast of their personal lives. Showing that Dev rides an ordinary bike around the Omnitopia campus and takes time to talk to his employees is one thing, but the way Phil barely sees his employees as people and then uses hand sanitizer after shaking their hands just rockets him up to the level of obnoxious cartoon villain. That shift makes his later moments of depth harder to believe, which is unfortunate given how much the book could benefit from a well-rounded lead villain. Phil's good moments really are great, and even as small a change as showing some of the partnership's collapse from Dev's perspective as well could have made both of them feel more real. It really gets grating to hear that Phil is single and obsessed with trophy wives, in opposition to Dev's ordinary-pretty wife and inhumanly perfect child. All of young Lola's foibles are endearing, and the closest thing she has to a flaw seems to be a high energy level. Dev mentions early on that it's great that Lola is so sociable and enjoys being around nannies while her parents are elsewhere a lot of the time-- in some ways it rings true, but in others it feels like a way to duck the issues inherent in balancing a career and a family. Some of the minor hackers who get a short chapter or two apiece generate sympathy, showing the meticulous nature of their craft or providing a reason for them to want to do almost anything to escape from the drudgery of their day jobs using stolen money, but that moment either vanishes without a trace when they don't appear again or deflates during a melodramatic sequence of just desserts.

Those final sequences are unfortunately not very climactic. The final battle for control of Omnitopia is great, and has a marvelous twist that I won't spoil here, but after that....with stated stakes like "the company is done if the servers go down," it seems to flop a bit. After that high point, the ending is more of a quiet coasting to the finish line than anything else; there's very little suspenseful setup for a sequel, and not much outside of that one twist has really changed. Villains are caught or punished, the good guys go on fighting for creativity, and even small emotional or family problems just sort of melt away. After such a slow start and such an intense middle sequence, this seems like the kind of book that's really only worth re-reading for the sake of that middle section with a light skim of some of the rest. Dev's family dynamics frankly aren't that interesting because his biggest fault is apparently forgetting to eat. His daughter doesn't even mind that he's busy for large stretches of each day while she's with nannies, his wife never has a real fight with him, and there's just not enough tension to carry through the long exposition and the mellow decline when the big hacker fight isn't on the table. There's not even much of a concern about insider information that was a problem earlier on, since Omnitopia just seems to effortlessly catch these people. There's not enough struggle, really, and that makes this one obscurely disappointing even though so many of the individual elements are fun.

One major subplot, the one that opens the book, is unfortunately something of a dead line. We already see Dev's difficulties in balancing family life with the game, so seeing Rik-- an ordinary player-- in similar situations doesn't do much to move the story forward. After showing kindness to a beginning player (and thus possibly tipping his own karma to a high enough level), Rik is given control of a Microcosm to shape according to whatever plan he has. He does some of that planning, meets with his fellow players, discovers a weird system glitch, reports it, talks with his wife a lot, feels guilty for not doing more chores, totally and completely normal, without so much as a single fight. He provides a decent look at what it's like to be a player on the ground without much power or status, but some of his spots-- particularly a long-winded errand to pick up robes-- just seem to be there to fill space or make some obscure point about the game works. That slows the narrative down and makes it harder to care, which is unfortunate, because Rik's narrative voice is a nice change from Dev's frenetic CEO lifestyle.

All in all, this is a brilliant concept, and there's plenty of room for sequels. Unfortunately, the pacing is off; the beginning is front-loaded with too many information dumps and dead spots to really engage the reader in any of the characters. Only Dev gets enough pagetime to feel real; many of the rest of the characters seem like one-note figures, good in a particular role but never venturing out of it or showing up unexpectedly. Odds are good that sequels will be better now that we're past some of the more space-heavy descriptive passages, but this one is too slow to really be a favorite.

Prospects: Amazon claims that the sequel, Omnitopia: East Wind, was released last year, but there are no copies available anywhere and I can't find an accurate release date. Cross your fingers!

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~Caverns of Socrates by Dennis McKiernan. It handles virtual reality very differently, but with a similar air of immersion and creativity. The players are put into the scenario with the knowledge of who they are in real life suppressed to improve the way they mesh with the character they've created. The blend of modern sci-fi and traditional epic fantasy works surprisingly well. 
~If you're drawn to the flavor of the magic and philosophy here, try Duane's Young Wizards set as well the Book of Night with Moon duet (I believe the third, The Big Meow, may be out as an e-book). They're both more YA, but they're very well-constructed; the time she put into writing them shows in all the best ways.
~Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde-- this one is also YA. A girl goes into a virtual reality game for what she thinks will be a normal afternoon of fun, but when the system malfunctions, she's trapped inside with only minimal guidance from the outside world. She'll die if she can't leave the system, and the only way out is to win.

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