Firebird (2008), Cover by Tony Sahara
There’s a certain kind of appeal in the idea of conflict resolution through a sophisticated virtual medium, especially when conflicts have a tendency towards real, physical violence. An environment that eliminates the crutch of physical inadequacies by providing the same starting point for all makes vis-à-vis encounters in a virtual context more bearable. The premise of Epic (2004) by Conor Kostick, first of the Avatar Chronicles trilogy, features such an environment, where all conflict is resolved through a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. In fact, the eponymous game is the very basis for this society’s legal and economic framework.
As outlandish as having a game be the means of governing appears, there does seem to be a reasonable enough justification for how it might have started out. Namely, the society’s intrinsically non-violent stance. The colonists that fled a deteriorating Earth held a core belief, almost Jain-like, that violence is the ultimate bane of civilization. This attitude is deeply entrenched within the minds of current generation settlers, and children are indoctrinated against the dangers of violence to such an extent that those having committed even simple acts are reviled and, in ‘extreme’ cases, exiled. The sophisticated game of Epic, initially developed purely for pleasurable and diversionary measures, offers a channel to confine any such tendencies to a non-physical level.
A novel idea where the setup sounds like a fun way to do things, but is it really? In Kostick’s novel, the majority of people are constantly “clipped” into their virtual consoles, levelling up their characters when they’re able to find time away from the drudgery of labour on their technologically devolved and somewhat resource-scarce world. Over time, this society has become as rigidly structured as any unjust system of government rife with discretionary handouts and corrupt officials bent on maintaining the status quo for ‘the good of all’.
Enter Erik Haraldson, fourteen year old gamer from a community of farmers whose mother has just died. That is, her character has just been killed in a duel by a Central Allocations (CA) champion as a result of requesting badly needed solar panels for their farm, without which they might not be able to meet their quota. If quotas are not met, CA wields the authority to resettle families to new locations for other forms of labour.
Requests for new resources is tantamount to a duel with CA where winning grants you said resources and losing is equivalent to the death of your character, a catastrophic occurrence making life inordinately difficult. And CA champions invariably wear the best dwarven-made armour, wield the finest magical weapons, and carry powerful potions that most players couldn’t hope to acquire within their lifetimes.
Erik comes to recognise the inherent bias in the game which is skewed in favour of CA. His frustration with his recent crop of deaths in preparation for an exam, not to mention his father’s inexplicable reluctance to play the game and challenge the unfair outcome against his family, spurs him on to create an unconventional Epic character. It’s a minor character type full of swashbuckling style as opposed to the oft chosen major ones, i.e. Warrior, Mage, Hunter et al. And, on a whim, he spends all his initial points on a rather impractical attribute.
Thus starts Erik’s journey of discovery of the true and heretofore unsuspected sophistication of Epic. This places him and his friends on an inexorable path leading to a confrontation with CA that could have vast consequences with regards to their world’s balance of power.
Epic by Conor Kostick is a simple, clean, plot-centric novel that reads easily. It is reminiscent of another MMORPG type novel, Cline’s Ready Player One, though published a full seven years earlier. It certainly predates most of the current crop of subpar, dystopian stories and eschews the trivialities they tend to feature. Taking place further in the future and incorporating at times a measured pace, Epic is a delightful adventure where the thoughtful ending even manages a slight level of poignancy. Aimed at a young audience, it features a more traditional fantasy quest juxtaposed with ‘real life’ politics and offers a greater focus on the antagonists, where we come to appreciate some of their motivations and responses to a society on the cusp of economic disaster. Recommended to all readers, young and old, for a light, fun and adventurous diversion.
© 2015 Nirvan Jain
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.