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Planet Stories 023 - 1976 - Kieran Yanner

Needing some light reading, I picked up another Planet Stories book when I saw it in the book store—you’d be surprised how quick these leave Barnes & Noble, and how few of them are stocked. This one happened to be Piers Anthony’s Steppe, a historical fiction turned space opera, which sounded fairly interesting from its back cover blurb.

After falling into a cavern, the Eurasian barbarian chieftain Alp is sucked into a future world by people who want to use his knowledge to play The Game. This Game is an immersive roleplaying experience where uneducated future players take roles of historical figures, each hoping to lead their character to victory and glory. In the end, Alp escapes into the Game, hoping to use his extent knowledge to become victorious as he evades the police looking for him on Earth, and becomes enmeshed in the plots and politics of scoring and winning. There are several great battles, the forging of several tribes, and a love interest for poor lost Alp, all inside this great Game, where players ride spaceship “horses” and fire “arrows” of pure light.

Steppe is one of those interesting books which has a lot of bad elements balanced with a lot of good ones. The entire plot is incredibly relevant and creative for today’s society—the Game is a cross between a star-spanning mumorpuger and a reality TV show, with the players gauged on their performance by the number of stable viewers. The aspect of corporate espionage, the Game itself, and the Machine overlords are like a pre-Cyberpunk trifecta, all the elements of Cyberpunk well before they arrived. While the book’s primarily a fantasy with its historical homage, Alp becomes so enmeshed—addicted, even?—to the game, its proto-Cyberpunk aspects are quite notable. And, as a roleplayer and gamer, the idea of the Game is pretty awesome.

At the same time, there’s a number of major flaws with the book. I’ll ignore some of the more contrived plot points/macguffins and the confusing time terminology of the Game world (one Year in the Game is equal to a day of real time, while a Day is a couple of real time minutes, and Anthony stops capitalizing and therefore distinguishing between them somewhere in the middle of the book). The major problem with the book is its long history-lesson stages. Vast sections of the book are pure exposition, with no action, as Alp either watches or leads a cartoon effigy of ancient peoples as they fight and conquer other cartoon figures representing other groups of ancient peoples. While an interesting concept, these sections were so damnably slow and droll that I ended up skipping most of them; I may not have known the history, but I don’t necessarily need to know it. Each expository chapter was akin to pulling teeth. It was like Anthony really wanted to write two books, a novel about a technologically advanced world-game and a textbook of Dark Age barbarian tribes, and ended up with this.

I should note that Planet Stories is becoming much more like the original pulp magazine of the same name—the splash page and cover are very magazine like, the book features internal illustrations and a two-column layout, and it’s increased in size to a proper digest format. The quality of the book just feels better as the covers are less rigid, and from start to finish the layout and text are evocative of a step into the past. It even features a retro-styled ad for Planet Stories subscriptions. Definitely a step in the right direction.

In the end, I found myself praising the complex originality of the plot and ideas, while despising the sections of heavy expository writing. At any point where Alp turns on the viewer (TV) to watch the cartoon factions fight each other, turning from giants to dwarves, I started tuning out. The second half of the book is particularly low on dialogue or interaction, all being done through authorial exposition in text-block format. Still, Steppe is a decent read, hooking you at its best points as much as it drives you away with its worst. It’s mediocrity at its best, a great idea with rough execution, and while I can’t say I’ll read it again it provided several nights worth of entertainment.

Afterword:

Sometimes, I wonder if I’ve been too critical in a book review: lambasted its failings more than necessary, made a mountain out of a molehill. That sort of thing. Pulling Steppe off my shelves and skimming some of the viewer historical/game recap sections tells me I was spot-on in that department. Dull as dry toast; not the most engaging of segments unless you eat up history texts on Dark Ages Asian nomad tribes as part of your reading regimen.

Otherwise, it’s a light and fluffy adventure yarn, entertaining but not exceptional. Its strongest assets are the creative ideas Anthony comes up with, which lead to an assortment of tags in my futile attempt to corral this novel into existing tropes, genres, and concepts. If you’re also a gamer, you might get a kick out of the novel’s future-Game combining elements of MMORPGs, reality TV, and one fantastic holodeck (sans malfunctions).

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