Friday, May 18, 2012

KILLOBYTE by Piers Anthony

Killobyte is a 1993 science fiction novel by Piers Anthony. Here, a paralyzed ex-cop and a depressed teenage diabetic find escape in an online virtual reality game, but are hounded by a malicious hacker/griefer with real-life-threatening results.

The writing here is decent, but not Anthony’s best. The dialogue is often stilted and expository, and the story strains credulity at times, usually when it’s trying to be feel-good or needs to make the plot go. Not for the first time, Anthony seizes on a few topics and themes, and rather than simply including them in the novel, forcibly educates the reader over many pages – here these topics include diabetes, the Druze, and early-1990s hacking.

Anthony perhaps spends too much time on his characters’ backstories, particularly as their profound self-pity is something of a barrier to reader sympathy; it might be natural, but it’s not great reading. Anthony also uses his protagonists to reaffirm gender stereotypes: Walter is fixated on his impotence, Baal on her looks. And it doesn’t help that Killobyte features a teenage villain who’s socially crippled and mentally disturbed – in all, a pitiable figure. Nevertheless, Anthony keeps the pages turning pretty well, and that covers a multitude of flaws.

The real star of the book is the game itself, which is appealing, and which is filled with logic puzzles and logistic challenges – staples of too many Anthony books to list. They aren’t as good as those in the Xanth or Apprentice Adept series, but the Killobyte scenarios are generally immersive and engaging enough to bring the reader through, even if Anthony does overstay his welcome from time to time.

From a gaming perspective, however, Killobyte has not aged well, at least inasmuch as the players of this MMORPG bear precious little resemblance to the modern gaming community. This disrupts suspension of belief in many ways that it wouldn’t have fifteen or even ten years ago. Where are the hardcore gamers? The trolls? The kill poachers? The angry teenagers and their homophobic slurs? (Well, there’s one, but he’s not a player.)

There’s a related problem with Anthony’s Killobyte game itself: it’s presented as a role-playing game, and the players treat it as such, but it’s an inherently kill-count-based game, not unlike any Call of Duty-type shooter (compounding this, some RPG elements, like the standard stat allocation system, don’t feel well thought out). The result is that the ambitious players don’t do the things you’d expect them to do if they were actually trying to rank up (i.e., play for points). Even casual modern gamers will readily see the obvious opportunities for boosting, even if every single one of Anthony’s supposed “serious” gamers are completely oblivious. The game is further muddled by the copious availability of sex, which is typical of Anthony but hard to buy in this context. The game is simultaneously an RPG, a shooter, a vacation destination, and a wish fulfillment, and if it existed as-is in real life, the shootists would ruin it for everyone else – you’d log on to nothing but unrestrained killing and sex.

That may seem like a lot of criticism, but many of these things are just extremely interesting (to those with gaming interests, at least) because they’re so far off the mark (for example, they’re doing VR that’s indistinguishable from reality on dial-up modems with zero lag). Most of it doesn’t seriously damage or break the story.

So then, while Killobyte is dated and certainly not as good a read as it was fifteen years ago, it’s still entertaining enough. If I were reading it for the first time in 2012, there’s no way I’d be able to give it more than three stars, max, but I have fond memories of it from the mid-nineties, before its propositions were so ludicrous. It’s recommended, but only to those with a gaming interest.