Initialization, by Brian Basham - 4 Stars
This is a young adult adventure in which a competitive and athletic group of college students train for a computer generated combat game that takes the public’s minds off asking difficult questions about oppressive rule in their dystopian society. It should appeal directly to followers of the Hunger Games just as much as to anyone who got a lot out of Orwell’s 1984, in which fake wars (instead of war games) were presented as a diversionary control tactic. It’s also a bit of a blast, with overtones of espionage and springy footed rebellion driven through scenes of sporty paintball tactics and virtual reality, so this has the general pocket money chaos factor of mainstream arcade entertainment, except the reader lives it vicariously instead of working the controls.
I have to say though, with absolutely no suggestion implied that the author is aware of a precedent, the idea behind it isn’t quite original. For those of you who aren’t a hundred years old, intensive cosplay trufans or for some other semi-excusable or incredible reason do not own a Blake’s 7 Series 1-4 box set and are not aware of Series 3, Episode 12, Death-Watch (by Terry Nation of Dr Who and the Daleks fame), first broadcast at 19.15 on Monday 13th July 1981, this is the original version of the concept that’s been explored in this book: In a society where the population are encouraged to be passive, a lethal sport is played out in a computer generated urban landscape which opponents enter through separate doors or rooms, then hunt each other to the death. The public choose a disc (blue or green) which they stick on their forehead to follow the mind of their champion in virtual reality immersion as they duel. The winner’s population gains a fleet of ships or some other form of forfeiture from the losing side’s population. This system is entertainment, VR and reality TV rolled into one (in 1981, so that’s visionary) but it also allows intractable disputes to be settled between huge populations by a single death and within a controlled arena, with no overspill, so it is actually a pacifist concept.
In Initialization, by Brian Basham, there are clear differences and (good) further developments to that basic concept. It’s a team game and it’s got a college campus feel, with no disparity between the sexes. These virtual wars are not supposed to be to the death, which allows characters to re-spawn in the next round, like sitting in the time-out dugout of a hockey match. This provides two advantages over the previous work: (i) the readers can become more attached to the characters as they won’t be dropping dead all the time and (ii) the characters can take enormous and exciting risks because if they don’t come off, so what? If you regenerate in VR, there’s no need for competitors to hesitate and protect their lives. The audience probably don’t get that and think their heroes would have the same attitude about throwing away their safety in real fighting where one mistake in the woods results in permanent death and food for beetles.
Anyway, all the characters who have these sports scholarships to college are young, strong, have that essential romantic tug and the dystopian rulers have made the mistake of providing them with a route to fitness and military training. This is a little like when the villain always explains their plan and then leaves the room – why do it? I’d fill them full of greasy chips and make the doors to the palace thin so they couldn’t overthrow me. It isn’t a great leap to see that this sport will be a recruiting ground for counter-establishment forces, is it? The mysterious and ruthless rulers react to that predictable outcome with the power of the state; taking off the safety systems in VR, embedding infiltrators and monitoring players with implants. They should have tried the chips.
School was never like this and it builds a more imaginative and oppressive atmosphere for the story as Crenshaw College starts to feel like Spy School, which sounds a lot of fun, although I’d get sick of the dark glasses, then counter-intrusion tests these characters’ ingenuity when they try to break the shackles. There’s a lot of humorous schoolyard banter about being ninjas but that becomes less and less ironic as the youthful players’ athletic abilities grow beyond the norm. Everyone’s very capable and you don’t know whom to trust (I guessed early. Clever me), then students (it’s not as if there was any education curriculum happening at Crenshaw anyway) get fast tracked into the fight between the grownups. Suddenly, players who have been conditioned to take enormous risks with their lives in VR are still taking them even though the safety nets are gone. Excitement rolls.
There’s a developing line of sexual tension between these attractive athletes which remains unfulfilled because the characters are so well-mannered and polite, with Sunday school intentions in between their grenade hurling and kill shots. I can imagine the author has a clear idea of their target readership and has decided, conscientiously, to stifle this line of enquiry before its logical conclusion. Either that or they’re aware their own kids will read it. That re-enforces the YA classification in my eyes but, in a more global sense, I wonder why we think blood and perforated bodies aren’t shocking to teenagers but knowing a character has their thrilling biological moments is.
It’s a good adventure and should set up an absorbing series, so I can’t fault Initialization as an example of its type or for suitability to its intended readership. It’s punchy, it’s young and it has an open end (which logic suggests will result in the fall of a tyrant about three books further on). I like the nemesis character particularly and, if I’d gone into acting, this is a role I would definitely apply for as living life hard and being tantalisingly cheeky is just my sort of cocktail. Initialization would have to be completely original in concept to steal my breath away and get that last star but this doesn’t mean I don’t recommend it. I do recommend it, to young adults. I also think prompting our national leaders to look into the merits of VR warfare to settle their disputes might save a nuking IRL, if they’re prepared to explore the concept, although I can’t see the Nobel Committee recognising sci-fi salvation just yet.