Thursday, January 5, 2012

Now, this is a Winter I can get on board with!

The Demi-Monde: Winter
by Rod Rees

I started reading this novel on Christmas Day, and what a gift to me!  I enjoyed it way more than expected—to the point that I could barely drag myself away to celebrate with friends.  Why the limited expectations?  Well, I was unfamiliar with the author, but even more I was wary of a science fictiony-sounding premise.  The novel does indeed intersect the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and thriller, making it a bit difficult to pigeonhole, but it all comes together terrifically.

Unfortunately, if you try to summarize the plot to anyone, you’ll sound like a lunatic.  Early in the novel, a character explains the basic set-up to Ella Thomas, the novel’s protagonist:
“Asymmetric Warfare is the U.S. military’s name for all those messy little conflicts that our country keeps finding itself fighting in hellish places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.  They are wars without rules and without honor and, to be blunt, they are wars the U.S. Army isn’t particularly good at fighting.  When the U.S. military began to study its performance in Asymmetric Warfare Environments it discovered that its soldiers, especially its officers, weren’t effective because they had no appreciation of or understanding of what sort of war they would be fighting.  So in order to prepare them better, the U.S. Army InDoctrination and Training Command came up with the idea of creating a computer simulation that would let our combat personnel experience what was waiting for them in Peshawar and desperate places like it…  The Demi-Monde is the most sophisticated, the most complex and the most terrifying computer simulation ever devised.  It’s a simulation that recreates the visceral anxiety and fear of being in an… Asymmetric Warfare Environment.  To play the Demi-Monde you have to be hardwired into it and the hardwiring creates a full sensory bypass: you believe you are in the Demi-Monde.”
Oh, and one other little detail…  If you die in the Demi-Monde, you die in real life.  Ella has been recruited for a rescue mission.  She possesses unique skills and qualifications—and is desperate enough to risk her life—in order to save the daughter of the President of the United States, who has somehow been lost in the Demi-Monde.

Okay, that is not the premise of what I typically read, but this book grabbed me almost immediately.  Without being “literary” in any way, the novel is very well written.  Rees isn’t merely setting his novel, he is world-building.  And doing so very, very effectively.  (In addition to the descriptions within the novel, I was fascinated by the maps scattered throughout.)  Elements of the Demi-Monde are based on Nazi Germany, but the world that Rees has created is so much richer and more complex than just that.  The novel is both political and philosophical, and Rees plays around a lot with language.  In fact, at the back of the book there’s a complete glossary of words like UnFunDaMentalism, HerEticalism, HimPerialism, ill-ucination, and the like.  At first, I thought the author was just having fun and being clever, but soon enough the use of language became highly Orwellian.  After all, it was Orwell who said, “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”  It’s all so entertaining and so smart.

And we haven’t even discussed the characters yet.  Ella is terrific character to build the novel around, but is actually one of several major characters.  The bulk of this novel takes place in the virtual reality of the Demi-Monde, which is peopled with 30 million “dupes,” basically artificial intelligences.  And they are so convincingly rendered that the reader experiences the same cognitive dissonance that Ella does in distinguishing exactly who and what is real.  The relationships depicted encompass the entire spectrum from love to hate and everything in between.  Race, religion, nationality, and yes, reality, all cause conflict with countless lives on the line.  But do dupe lives even matter?

You’ve probably gathered by now that this is a complicated 500+ page novel, and it is only the first of a quadrilogy.  There is a story arc in this first novel, but there really is no resolution.  It ends on multiple cliff-hangers.  This is the sort of thing I generally hate, but I was so caught up in this fast-moving epic that really I’m just looking forward to the next installment and pleased that there will be three more volumes to look forward to.  Hooray for trying something a bit outside my comfort zone!  What a great find!  My New Year’s resolution: resist ordering a copy of the sequel from England.  It’s going to be hard.

NOTE:  Click on the link attached to the author's name above to visit the very cool Demi-Monde website!

1 comment: