The story delivers an interesting premise, where the only profession left after the rise of the machines and the enslavement of humanity is basically being more human than human, being the best actor you can be. There’s something that works for me in the public/private dichotomy for the actress (highlighted in the last line, an act which nobody watches), and to be fair this is entirely her POV, but for all the subtlety that the story implies is the pinnacle of success for its protagonists, it shows remarkably little finesse when it comes to exploring the ideas of just who or what did the conquering and why humanity fell in line. I’m left with a lot of questions the story doesn’t really address, such as what happens when people simply carry on being genuine people without consciously playing the game. Seems like they would be the winners.
I usually don’t warn about spoilers, because if you’re reading a review of something then it rather goes without saying, but this time really—experience the story for yourself first, then come back. Don’t worry, this’ll keep.
So! This is really kind of brilliant. You think it’s one story, then another, then it turns out it’s about something else entirely, something richer and deeper and much closer to home. It might’ve been a well-conceived story about interstellar travel, or a well-conceived story about virtual reality, but it’s way more than that, tying its story–and it does have one, with a powerful emotional heart–into themes of prisoners’ rights and medical experimentation and—and I know this might seem frivolous compared to the other two but hear me out—gaming culture, expectations and doxxing. Coming a couple of months after the release of No Man’s Sky to similar expectations, if not similar technology, it actually has something to say about that, and about what drives consumers, and at whose expense our expectations–or entitlement–are, or are not, met.
I’m keeping this one in mind for when awards season rolls around again.
Reminiscent of Johnny Got His Gun, an unwilling soldier is pushed beyond the reasonable limits of endurance into a state where free will and communication are taken from them, and they struggle to retain what personal power they can. It’s dark and cautionary, exploring the lengths to which a person can be exploited in the name of protecting their “people”.
What struck me most was the juxtaposition of a neuroatypical protagonist and the depersonalisation of the soldier. It is a reality for some neuroatypical people that neurotypical people assume they don’t “feel” things; that idea is taken to escalating extremes here. At one point early on the protagonist refers to themself as “a smoothly functioning component in the machine”, a prescient statement in horrific ways. Read as a metaphorical exploration of what it feels like to be depersonalised, it becomes even more powerful to me than as an anti-war statement.