Let’s imagine you’re the US military. One of your brain-labs invents the uber-computer, which never experiences slow-down because it’s impossible to run more processes than it can cope with. They call it ABBA. I’m not sure why they do this, the book is obsessed with acronyms and wordplay, but I don’t remember being told what ABBA stood for, and I can’t find it in a quick flick.
So, anyway, you have the supreme number cruncher, you are the military, what do you do with it? You run VR simulations of warzones that are indistinguishable from the real thing. I’m with it so far. Where the book goes next… I’m not so sure…
They want to train their soldiers in asymetrical warfare environments (AWE). With unpredictable terrain and unpredictable enemies. So rather than creating an actual real world environment, they create a hyper-reality. The world squashed into a single, circular realm. They over-populate it and introduce other stress factors between different regions, like racism and extreme sexism. The idea is that in the Demi-Monde there will always be a war.
The inhabitants of the Demi-Monde don’t know they are simulations (dupes), they think their world is the real world. Throw into the mix (why not) a handful of perfectly simulated genocidal psychopaths (Rasputin, Crowley, Reinhard Heydrich for example) to lead the world, let the stew-pot bubble away and then beam your soldiers in. (It’s important to note that most of Demi-Mondian society are normal people (fake normal people) just trying to live their lives…)
Oh, and to add an extra layer of tension. Make the inhabitants of the Demi-Monde dependant on blood to live. Each inhabitant is rationed enough to survive, but not to be sated, through the blood banks, controlled by ABBA. Except here is where the first bug appears, the inhabitants of the Demi-Monde don’t have blood in their veins. They don’t have veins. But real-world ‘players’ do. They can be captured in the Demi-Monde and drained of blood which can be sold on the black market. So US soldiers become like horrible cows, strung up and bled out.
Surely at this point you shut the machine down. Call it a day and re-start the thing. But there’s a problem (of course). The president’s daughter is trapped inside, somehow. And you can’t just switch the machine off, because, of course, her mind won’t return to her body that way, it will be lost, forever. And did I mention, if you die in the Demi-Monde, you die in the real world… It would be easy to shout Matrix! and rip-off! but why would you? There were virtual worlds before the matrix, and they often had the same maxim. Besides, the Demi-Monde is like the matrix (or any other VR) on a really bad trip.
So the core of the book’s story, its driving force, is this rescue mission. Except somehow all of the portals into the Demi-Monde have been locked down. There is only one exit remaining, and only one way to get an agent in. They need someone who looks exactly like an inactive dupe within the Demi-Monde, which just happens to be Ella, non-military and just looking to make a quick buck (or million). Quite why the real world operator has to look exactly like the Dupe I’m not sure… I can build a character on my Xbox that looks nothing like me, but hey, I’m no expert on god-computers.
To the Demi-Mondians, ABBA is god, the principle object of their worship. Which is weird when you consider all the other tensions they’ve thrown in there… but hey.
Now, does this all sound a little contrived? A little bit heavy-handed? Because it did while I was reading it. The more you think about it the more improbable the whole set up seems. Which is a shame, because the whole world of the Demi-Monde is a really interesting experiment and environment in which to set a story. I think I would have liked to have become more immersed in it before it was revealed to me that the whole thing was a virtual world. I would have liked to have been made to wonder, and ponder, before being told. But, hey, I’m not published, Rod Rees is, I guess he knows best. ;)
So I’m sure you can imagine there is a lot of set-up involved in the early stages, a little real world, a lot Demi-Mondian -because that is where most of the story occurs. It’s not boring, though. It gives the book a chance to introduce the random capitalisations and acronyms it relies quite heavily on… HerEtics, HimPerialism, MALEvalence, UnFunDaMentalism (there’s a lot of that one) and more. It’s almost too much, but it actually works. Too little and it would have seemed a half-baked idea, but the prevalence of these forged words actually makes it seem more genuine, more natural within the context of the world. It is a feature of the dialect, if you like.
The first half is a little slow, it takes a little while to settle in, but it builds to an incredibly tense scene about halfway through, where several key characters seem imperilled by each others plans and it doesn’t seem possible they can all survive and you really don’t want any of them to die… and from that point onwards the book really shifts up a gear. We actually get some of this warfare the Demi-Monde was made for, we get action and explosions. We get character development (dramatically so in some cases). We get to see some of the real potential the Demi-Monde has as a fantasy setting. A world apart from our own. And it’s great.
And then it finishes. I’m guessing the series is going to run to four books (hence ‘Winter’). I don’t really care about the real world elements, other than the fact that potentially they could just wipe the Demi-Monde, and that’s the bit I really like, as an experiment, as a fantasy world that’s a mad mash-up of our own. It would never be created, that bit is far too far-fetched, unbelievable even by science fiction’s lofty standards, but I’m glad it was forced into creation by a contrived plot-crowbar, because it’s a world I can’t wait to get back to.
I do recommend giving the Demi-Monde: Winter a go. It’s something quite different, and I’m always up for that. Stick it out through the weighty disbelief (too heavy to fully suspend) and the slow build because it becomes truly exciting about half way through, and really, really interesting by the end. I’m looking forward to more, I want to see where this goes.