We were feeling something they never had— a physical link into the world of the fictional— through the skeletal muscles of the arm to the joystick to the tiny person on the screen, a person in an imagined world. It was crude but real.
Father, forgive me, for I have sinned: it’s been a month since I last read Austin Grossman’s second novel You, and I still haven’t reviewed it. I’m not even sure how to approach reviewing it. I read it. I loved it, despite a few misgivings. I thought about it a lot. I went back and reread a few chapters, to see if I really loved it as much as I thought I did, and to see if those few misgivings were really justified. I did, and they were, yet I still didn’t know how to sum up my reading experience in such a way that it would possibly make sense for others.
So, for good measure, I read the whole thing again, collected about ten pages full of quotations, and then proceeded to sit in front of my laptop for entirely too much time trying to find a way to approach this novel. By then, You had been released, opinions were popping up, comparisons were being made. Avoiding these was hard—a difficult situation for someone like me who painstakingly avoids early reviews of books so my own review/opinion doesn’t get affected in any way. Time was slipping away. The author even mentioned a “positive review bingo” game on Twitter, listing the novels most reviews referred to as touchpoints—some of which I will, to my shame, probably mention too in this review.
In the end, I’m going to sum it up this way: You is a good novel, but its subject matter, and the way it approaches its subject matter, may turn it from “good” to “great” or even “life-changing” for you. Conversely, those aspects may also flip it into the “bad” or even “unreadable” columns for you.
Personally, I loved it. I have a list of friends who will probably get annoyed at my vigorous recommendations to read it. With some of them, I’ll keep sending those recommendations their way until they give in and love it like I did. However, I also have a list of people who I would never recommend this book too, because I know full well that it would not touch them the way it touched me. It’s that kind of book.
And all the time, you’d be rapt, absorbed in the story in the gently paradoxical, bootstrapped state of semibelief that video games can create, where you’re enough outside yourself to be someone else and enough in yourself to be living the story as if it were real life.
You is, for the most part, the story of a young man who grew up in the early days of the personal computer. Remember that now almost imaginable thrill when you pressed a key on a keyboard for the first time and saw a letter appear on a screen rather than a piece of paper? Remember owning an Atari or Coleco console and then realizing the vast potential a Commodore 64 or a TRS-80 opened up? Even if all that led to for you was putting lame jokes in REM lines?
Those of us who were kids when all of this was happening were changed forever. Pong paddles changed, started being able to do more than just move up and down, turned into recognizable characters. The black space they inhabited gained complexity. Characters acquired the ability to evolve, as did their worlds. It became easier and easier to lose yourself in an environment that wasn’t just fictional but interactive. And, for some, building those interactive environments became almost imperative:
The idea of simulating an alternate world had taken over thousands of otherwise promising minds. It was the Apollo program for our generation, or maybe the Manhattan Project was a better analogy.
You is the story of young people growing up while this entire new medium is growing up and while the technology used to create it is growing up too. Sure, there’s much more to the novel than that: there are great characters and plot lines and a set of themes and layers that practically beg to be analyzed. But, first and foremost, it’s a book about growing up along with a whole new medium.
Interestingly, it’s not the novel’s main character Russell but his friends who become part of the nascent computer game industry, growing a school project into a company (Black Arts) and the Realms of Gold game franchise. When they originally conceived their game world of Endoria for a project in an Intro to Programming course in school, the game’s main character was represented by a plus sign and monsters were ampersands; by the time the novel starts, it’s 1997, both Quake and Ultima Online are a reality, and Russell is applying for a job at his old friends’ company Black Arts.
A large part of the novel consists of flashbacks, showing Russell and friends growing up: teenage adventures, computer camp, late night coding sessions. The fleeting drama of teenage friendships, growing into the personal and professional relationships of the adults who run Black Arts. Russell’s friends make for an interesting group of characters:
The five of us as we were then. Darren, a hyperkinetic burnout. Lisa, dark, inward, wry. Don watching everybody else in the room. Simon, pale, distracted, intense in a place you couldn’t reach. He was smart, really smart, math-in-his-head, perfect-scores-without-trying smart, the way I fantasized about being. I could be valedictorian of my class—and I was—but I would never come off that way, the way he did. He just didn’t seem to care that much about it. He didn’t even take Honors courses which made it doubly annoying.
The flashbacks show the conception of the original Realms of Gold game, the quest for the ultimate game, and the genesis of the four primordial gaming characters (“Nearly every story needed to fill one or more of their roles, “fighter” or “wizard” or “thief” or, well, “generic female person,” and they always showed up and did their bit.”) but most of all, and most touchingly, those flashbacks show the tight, sometimes conflicted friendship of a small group of outsiders who have latched onto the nascent geek culture, something cool and new but impenetrable to outsiders. Imagine Mor from Jo Walton’s Among Others if she’d known a group of like-minded science fiction fans from the start and grew up to be an editor. Austin Grossman hits all the right notes when he describes the closeness of the five young characters:
For the rest of us, cool was a deep fantasy, the stuff of Heavy Metal dreams, marble cities, adventure, fate, ancient curses, reaching its extreme limit in the lonesome, otherworldly hauteur of Elric of Melniboné. It wasn’t possible to be cooler than Elric. I think there was a tacit agreement between them that Simon and Darren were in some way both Elric, which was as close as they could safely get, maybe, to saying they loved each other.
It takes some time for all of this to take shape and become clear to the reader, and yes, sometimes it wanders too much and feels somewhat self-indulgent, but it’s in that past that the seed of the novel’s main plot lies. A mysterious software bug somehow carries on through all the game’s many installments to the present day. One character is only seen in the flashbacks. Traces of the teenagers’ lives bleed into the present and into the game.
The “present day” side of the novel shows Russell getting reacquainted with the ever-changing world of game design as Black Arts begins work on the newest Realms of Gold installment. Austin Grossman, who has an extensive background in game design, shows that he knows whereof he speaks in this novel. As one character says:
Don said it was like we had all the problems of shooting a movie while simultaneously inventing a completely new kind of movie camera and writing the story for a bunch of actors who weren’t even going to follow the script.
Grossman goes into considerable detail when it comes to the processes and challenges of game creation. You may find the level of detail fascinating or boring, depending on how interested you are in gaming and game design. Some of it is integral to plot and character development, and some of it feels more peripheral. If you don’t mind Neal Stephenson’s habit of forcing every little bit of non-fiction research into his novels willy-nilly, you won’t mind Grossman’s tendency to do the same with his knowledge of game design.
Throughout all of this, Grossman describes Russell’s evolution. He’s a smart kid, maybe a shade less brilliant version than Quentin from Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (Austin and Lev are twin brothers) but with the same general outlook on life: “I—well, no one ever seemed to be able to put a finger on it, but I was never going to be as happy as I was supposed to be.” Like Quentin, Russell is not quite as tethered to the real world as most people. He tends towards escapism. He refers to his own life as “the lamest computer game of all time” at one point and finds himself thinking:
I wanted to feel like I was at the start of a story worth being in, instead of being twenty-eight and feeling like my story was already over, like it was the most boring, botched story imaginable.
A less charitable way of putting this, and the reason some people may dislike this novel as much as they disliked The Magicians (a novel I loved even more than You, by the way – you can find my review and interviews with the author here) is that Russell shows the same combination of intelligence, privilege and almost inexplicable ennui as Quentin in The Magicians did. Just like Quentin, Russell discovers that having your fantasy become real isn’t always what you expected it to be. He has so much, and he whines so much, and he fails even in his escapism. Some readers will identify with this character. Some will appreciate it even if they don’t identify. And some will hate the novel because of it. If the idea of a white suburban kid saying things like “You’re way too much inside your head, and other people notice, but you won’t realize that for another ten years, maybe more, and by then maybe it’s too late” throughout the novel turns you off, you’ll probably have the same reaction to Austin Grossman’s novel as to his brother Lev’s.
Russell learns to navigate the intricate world of the small Black Arts game design studio much like he learns to navigate the game they are building. He frequently thinks of experiences as tests or challenges rather than, well, experiences. He also, incidentally, receives the occasional visit from the four playable game characters. It’s never entirely sure if this is really happening or the result of sleep deprivation, an overactive imagination, or some unspecified neurosis: Prendar, Loraq, Brennan and Leira just show up in his apartment once in a while. As you’d expect, Russell finds himself attracted to Leira:
I couldn’t see anything promising in falling in love with the heroine in a video game, but there it was. And that I was designing her latest game raised questions of conflict of interest. But I was in love—I couldn’t help it. It was an occupational hazard and didn’t do any harm. So what if I had a fantasy girlfriend? She was smart and confident and had amazing hair, and she was a princess. At least she was a playable character. Or did that make it worse?
You is an adventurous tangle of styles, time shifts, and perspective changes, as the excerpt Tor.com posted a while back shows. At one point, the novel memorably slips into text adventure mode early on; Russell keeps typing “WEST” as if he’s trying to walk off the map of the game world. There are bug report emails and status meetings from the world of game design. There are large chunks of lore from the actual games. There are breathless descriptions of multi-player matches. There are occasionally confusing shifts in perspective, from first to second to third person, which may feel like sloppy writing or editing but also almost exactly mimic the feeling of playing some of the oldest attempts at role-playing games:
Simon added a class of command that printed more text beneath the map, to say things like “I don’t recognize that key” or “You feel cold air moving” or “The walls here are covered with rotting tapestries,” and invented without thinking about it the voice of the game, which skipped around between first and second and third person depending on what you were doing—the hidden narrator, the companion, the adjudicator behind the curtain.
The title of the novel being You, it’s hard not to think that this is the entire point of the novel. It’s the story of a group of friends as well as a group of characters. It’s the experience of becoming, for a short time, the character of the game you’re playing. It’s the Holy Grail all game designers have always searched for: the perfectly transparent fourth wall, eliminating any barrier between the player (or reader) and the plus sign or stick figure or perfectly rendered three-dimensional warrior on the screen:
Your character is always going to be you; you can never ever quite erase that sliver of you-awareness. In the whole mechanized game world, you are a unique object, like a moving hole that’s full of emotion and agency and experience and memory unlike anything else in this made-up universe.
I can feel them even though they’re not real, they’re not even fictional characters. They’re simultaneously less and more than real characters. Less because they don’t have real selves. They don’t have dialogue, or full backstories. They’re just a bunch of numbers. They’re vehicles or tools players use. They’re masks. But more because part of them isn’t fiction at all, it’s human—it’s their player half. It’s you. Or Simon, or Darren, or Lisa, or Matt. And I wonder what that moment is like for them, when they become playable. It must be like possession, like a person succumbing to the presence of a god or daemon. A trance, then a shuddering, as of flesh rebelling against the new presence. Then the eyes open and they’re a stranger’s. The new body is clumsy; it stumbles around, pushes drunkenly against walls and objects, tumbles off cliffs. But what’s it like for the god that possesses them? There’s a little bit that goes the other way. The fleeting impression of living in their world, playing by their rules.
(Told you I had a lot of quotes, didn’t I?)
On Twitter, Austin Grossman recently said “Funny I didn’t think of YOU as a nostalgia project, more like drawing a line from past toward present, graphing toward future.“ Yes, there’s something to this, obviously. As I’ve tried to show in this review, the novel works on different levels, and nostalgia is really just one of those—but it’s a powerful one. Many references in this novel will not make any sense to people who didn’t live through this period at the right age. Someone who tried to write a similar story a hundred years from now would need to do a frightful amount of research and would probably still get half of it wrong. So, nostalgia isn’t all there is to You, but it’s a large part of it.
If you’re the kind of person who remembers using a hole-punch to turn a single-sided floppy disc into a double-sided floppy disc, you really should read this novel. If you have fond (or not so fond) memories of that time and age, this book may prove to be impossible to put down. You is the story of a generation discovering and creating its own “incandescent mythology.” I’ve rarely been this sad when a novel was over.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on June 7th, 2013 as Our Own Incandescent Mythology: You by Austin Grossman