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WesternSFA
In Real Life
by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang
First Second, $17.99, 192pp
Publication Date: October 14, 2014
Somehow I've ended up reading a few writers primarily outside the material for which they're best known. I've read some of Jerry Pournelle's science fiction, for instance, but know him better as a columnist on computers and technology. Similarly, I haven't read as much of Cory Doctorow's fiction as I'd like, but I still read his writing everyday on 'Boing Boing' on popular culture as filtered through technological activism.

This is a graphic novel based on one of his short stories, none of which I've yet read. This one is 'Anda's Game,' which was originally published on Salon.com in 2004. While the title is clearly a deliberate take on Orson Scott Card's 'Ender's Game,' it's a very different story indeed. It's beautifully adapted here into a graphic format by Jen Wang, a cartoonist and illustrator with one previous graphic novel to her name, 'Koko Be Good.'

As fans of Doctorow might expect, it's a mixture of well-grounded young adult fiction and social activism.

The fiction is easy to engage with, given that Anda, the leading lady, is a believable young girl from Flagstaff without the blistering looks or hip accoutrements with which most pop culture heroines today are inflicted. She's merely a girl, a bit shy, a bit naive and a bit socially awkward, but she's also bright, caring and responsible, adjectives which should never be viewed in the negative. She's refreshing, to say the least.

The social activism comes through her introduction to social justice and the global marketplace through playing an MMO, a massively multiplayer online game, to which she's invited by a classroom guest as part of an attempt to boost the self-esteem of girls, not least by persuading them to play as girls. An early progression of panels highlights well that many girls in Anda's class play games but none of them play as girls. Anyone who has knows why.

So Anda logs in to Coarsegold Online as Kalidestroyer and proves to have a strong aptitude for the game. Beyond having the skills needed to get things done while raiding out of Scholar City, she finds that she's more socially able when playing online than in real life. She progresses well, under the guidance of Sarge, another girl with more experience and what Yorkshiremen call nouse. She learns and benefits from the lessons, even to the degree of earning real money from her raids, deposited into her PayPal account.

And then, as you might expect, her parents discover the money and start asking the sort of questions that Anda might have asked, or persevered in asking, herself if she wasn't quite so naive. Unfortunately she loses her connectivity as a punishment and her character as a warning just as she's starting to lose that naivete through a chance encounter with a goldminer from China. And here's where things really get interesting.

It's likely that anyone choosing to pick up a Doctorow book, even one that's a graphic adaptation by someone else of one of his stories, is going to recognize some, but not all, of the technology in play. It's just as likely that many readers will find a new depth of social meaning to details of technology that they may have taken for granted. This combination of easy accessibility and new depth is what makes Doctorow's stories so infectious and so timely. Jen Wang's art is endearing, enticing and instructive, using space well to highlight his points in a clear way without ever letting the new tech overwhelm the old story.

The most obvious flaw is in the speed at which things unfold. I can buy into the way that Anda meets Raymond, the Chinese boy who works twelve hours a day in the game mining gold to sell to rich western players with short attention spans and then spends four more a day playing for fun. I can buy into the culture shock which Anda experiences as her world shifts under her, both online and in real life. I can totally buy into the way that her parents react (and overreact) when they start to discover what's going on and assume the rest.

What's less believable is how quickly Anda manages to achieve change. This is material worthy of a lot more exploration than a short story, or a short graphic adaptation of one, allows and that's very apparent. The speed at which change happens here is such that it actually lessens the message, making it seem too simple a problem with too easy a solution. If the world worked like this, we'd have a utopia in weeks, all courtesy of a few girls playing online games. Of course, there's a deep irony in the fact that this very book was printed in China.

No, the message is a good one and an important one, but this is an introduction to these concepts rather than a solution. And by concepts, I don't just mean the exploitation of third world labor in surprising ways and the power of labor organization to effect a positive change; I mean, just as much, the western assumption of privilege in ways that we don't even think about. This is as much a live argument as anything on the technology side and it's even more important.

Perhaps some readers, drawn in by Wang's art and the gorgeous production of this First Second book, will find that they leave with Doctorow's story resonating in their minds. It'll fly over a few heads and annoy a few others with its oversimplification. However, it should also open the minds of many to some thoughts that they've never had and that's always a good thing. I just hope that some won't only follow up with other Doctorow books or stories, they'll also follow up with a visit to the 'Boing Boing' blog, which should expand their minds a little further. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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