Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Gamechanger - L.X. Beckett

Gamechanger is the debut novel of L.X. Beckett. It focuses on Rubi Whiting, some time professional gamer, part-time lawyer, as she investigates events around one of her clients, the mysterious and troubled Luce, in a world that is pulling back from the bring of ecological catastrophe.
If you’ve not got the time to read any more, and want to know whether the story is any good: yes! It’s an interesting narrative, wrapped in a detailed, plausible, compelling world, with some character’s it’s easy to enjoy spending time with – and some it’s equally easy to dislike. If innovative, near-future SF is your jam, this one is made for you.

Lets talk about that world, by the by. It’s ours, lets start there. Well, it used to be. Today, we’re living the early stages of one of the great crises that shaped the world of Gamechanger, the ominously named Setback. Alluded to, picked up from environmental clues, from reminiscences of characters who were young in the middle years of the Setback, we can infer it was a mixture of economic downturn and climate catastrophe, turned up to eleven. Flooding destroyed cities. Wildfires razed forests. Ecosystems collapsed. Thousands, then millions, starved. Billionaires locked themselves in fortresses, and were torn apart by howling mobs.

The Setback was followed by the Clawback, as surviving governments, power-brokers and ordinary people came together in a last-ditch effort to build a sustainable global society. There was rationing. Mass graves. Brutal violations of civil rights.

Gamechanger, however, sits squarely within the Bounceback. After a generation of chaos, horror and catastrophe, humanity is getting its feet under it again. To do so, however it operates in a society that is at once familiar and alien. It’s dependent on co-operation, dependent on group sharing of resources, dependent on high-tech solutions, dependent on everyone being almost constantly surveilled, and under the aegis of a social-capital currency.

That’s the short version. But what I want to talk about (and what my inadequate summary above may demonstrate) is how cohesive and richly realised this society is. It’s not just modernity with some paint-by-numbers cyberware. The social fabric makes sense on its own terms. The space the story operates in is cogent, coherent, and showing us something different. To me, at least, it blended elements of utopia and dystopia, building a richly complex stew of social mores as a result. The death of most individual property, the provision of a universal basic income – sure. The replacement of staples with things that can be stimulated to taste like those staples? Sure. The loss of pets? Now we’re hitting a nerve. The constant monitoring of each person allows for a society that dealing simultaneously with being informationally post-scarcity but in a resource-scarce environment. But having each person subject to social consensus is a double-edged sword.
What this ends up meaning is, the world on display here has wounds, and scars. Though it’s being built back up, it has the sense of becoming something new – and at once terrifying and awe inspiring. That said, it’s a hopeful vision of the world, once where people are doing better, at least most of the time, and that’s a treasure.

In part, that’s helped by technology.

This is a space filled with subdermal implants. With AI programmes which simulate intelligence, and curate your experience. In short, it’s a plausible, albeit worrying, extrapolation of our future. The sense that the real can be removed, that scrubbing a toilet with a drone is masked and gamified, is at once believable and disquieting. That the goals these tasks purpose are positive ones does help shape our perceptions of this future, but still.

The broader point here is that this is a richly described, finely crafted world. It makes sense on its own terms, and as it skips between the virtual and the “real”, as it moves from city to city, from rain-drenched streets to virtual palaces, it works hard to make all of those places seem real. It’s a world that will draw you in, a world that feels real.

 On this well-crafted stage step our players. And to their credit, they’re an interesting lot.
Rubi Whiting is probably the closest thing to a protagonist, though we do switch between point of view characters every so often. In a world where permanent jobs are a rarity, Rubi is famous for having played virtual games very well indeed (requiring the training of a professional athlete as well as the reflexes of a gamer). But now she’s taking her first client as a lawyer and that client is…to put it mildly, a bit strange. Getting back to Rubi though, she’s a pleasure to share a book with. Professional, focused, genuinely trying to do her best for people, and not overly willing to take any crap to do so. She is, not to put too fine a point on it, fierce. Rubi is a fine window into her world, taking things in stride as we try to catch up on how things work they way they do, and why. She’s sympathetic and complicated. There are feelings there of inadequacy, imposter syndrome – but also of love and loyalty, a genuine idealism, a desire to make things better. Rubi is a very human hero. Flawed, yes, but still working to do the right thing, for the right reasons. That she’s smart, sassy and kicks occasional arse only makes her more of a joy to see on the page.

In this she’s joined by her father, one of the survivors of the Setback, now an old man, whose personal demons make it difficult for him to maintain the social cachet that his talents demand. Troubled, yes, but he’s still a person of honesty and integrity. Contrasting his weary cynicism and determination to do better with Rubi’s enthusiastic idealism makes for an interesting read. Both approach things from a calm moral centre, but have very different perspectives.

They’re joined by a pitch-perfect ensemble cast, including the detective who takes themselves a little too seriously, wrapped up in their own image and ego, investigating Rubi’s client, Luce. Luce’s oddities are obvious, and quite who he is may not be immediately clear. But they’re certainly a compelling presence, an unplanned variable in a system which is struggling to get back to self-maintenance. There are others, a diverse cast of smart, well-drawn characters, whose lives and loves, arguments, victories and defeats will be enough to keep you turning the page. I do want to mention that the villains of the piece are artfully, unpleasantly awful – they have fewer shades of grey, I suspect, than they deserve, but then again, it’s nice when a baddy is so deliciously bad.

Anyway. This is a complicated book. It’s a mystery, on the one hand. On the other, it’s a romance. On the gripping hand, it’s exploring a lot of big science-ficition themes: transhumanism, the rise of artificial intelligence, virtualities, sifting economic and social models. It’s a big book with big ideas, which it explores through some fantastically readable characters, in a vivid and richly detailed world.

It’s absolutely worth the read, and I look forward to seeing more from the author!

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