Sunday, 17 July 2011

Review: Gamerunner - B. R. Collins

Extent: 288 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pub Date: 4th July 2011

Rick is a Gamerunner. His job is to test there are no glitches or bugs in The Maze - the computer game that is much more than just a computer game. In the Maze you physically become your avatar. You fight, run and loot, all the time avoiding the deadly slicing traps - whirling blades that appear from nowhere. Rick has known nothing outside The Maze and his life at the headquarters of Crater, the company that created The Maze. When Rick's father falls out of favour and Rick is faced with being thrown out of Crater HQ into the outside world - a world of flesh-dissolving acid rain and ferocious, feral roving gangs - Rick has some life-changing decisions to make...

As soon as you open the pages of Gamerunner you are immediately plunged into a very strange but horrifyingly realistic future where computer games are more of an alternate reality than a hobby. Gamers can live out most of their days in a game tank where their bodies and minds are hooked up to The Maze and through their avatars they can explore an unending world. When you think about it, this isn't actually that far from a couple of games that are around today - The Sims, World of Warcraft and perhaps most alarmingly Second Life where you can create yourself virtually and live a virtual life. I say alarmingly because with developments in gaming like these, coupled with increasingly immersive experiences - like the Xbox Kinect - it's not actually that hard to imagine the future that B. R. Collins has created. It doesn't need too much mental exercise to envision a company like Google or Apple or Nintendo could create something that would make them the most powerful entity on the planet and in order to escape the horrors of a ruined world, people become enslaved to them, addicted to the virtual world because the real one is so unbearable. This future gives Gamerunner actually quite a frightening premise and you can feel the threat of this reality looming as you read, like a drum-laden soundtrack thrumming in your ears.

The hero, Rick, is one of those heros whom you don't know whether to cry over or slap around the face. The reader is plunged into this world with him and not told anything so you have to suck up every scrap of information the author feeds you in order to understand what's happening and understand Rick's situation. This is actually a really clever piece of writing as it makes the reader feel the kind of dark chaos and confusion that Rick feels as his world suddenly changes and no one will tell him why it has changed. He then makes some really stupid decisions (which is when I wanted to slap him!) but he's making those decisions based on his life and the reactions he would have in The Maze - and that's the point at which I want to cry over him because actually, his life is The Maze and he has so little experience of real life that he doesn't know what to do or how to behave in reality. You go through his first real world experiences with him that he should have had as a child but is only just getting round to them as a teenager, like crying, pain and death. It's like his realities have switched but unlike The Maze where he can just start again when he dies, he can't escape the horrors of real life and he doesn't know how to cope with them. And no one will help him.

I felt an overwhelming sense of loneliness as I read this book and funnily enough it was actually the kind of heart-hollowing loneliness I often felt when I used to play computer games for too long. B. R. Collins really knows how to tap into that part of your psyche that is attached to playing games and if you don't play computer games, you'll know exactly how it feels.

Gamerunner is not a happy read but it is a very important read, a brilliantly written insight into a dangerously possible future where care for the real world has been replaced by care for a virtual world. As the real world becomes less habitable for humans, the virtual world becomes the only place where a person can really live but it is just as cut throat and unforgiving and gradually enslaves the entire population who are addicted to escaping the world they've ruined. Despite being in a privileged position, Rick is no exception to this, he is the greatest slave of all: a slave to his father, a slave to The Maze, a slave to Crater, a slave to the outside world, Undone, and because he's never learnt how to live in the real world he is first and foremost a slave to himself.

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