B R Collins’s Gamerunner is a tricky book to summarise. At first glance it’s your typical dystopian future novel. Set in said future is a world very clearly divided into the haves and have-nots, with the haves living a life not too dissimilar from our own (albeit completely indoors so… not too dissimilar from our own), and the have-nots living outside in the near-constant acid rain and poisonous atmosphere, surviving on tasteless protein shakes. In this future, a virtual reality game called ‘The Maze’ has become popular. Created entirely by a genius called Daedalus, The Maze is basically a MMORPG on steroids. Rick, Daedalus’s son (maybe), has lived most of his life inside the maze, testing it for bugs, running all of the dungeons and wasting time. UNTIL NOW (cue dramatic music).
Pretty standard, right? Dystopian future with an escapist-type game isn’t exactly breaking new ground. BUT (and here’s the big but) there’s nothing really standard about this book. Despite the cover, the trailer and pretty much everything else focussing on the game, it actually features surprisingly little in the book. It’s used as a starting point and to set up the main conflict, but most of the book is about Rick having to deal with real life for the first time. And I love this book for that.
One of the most interesting things I found is the way the book distinguishes between real life and the virtual reality of The Maze at a basic, mechanical level: by using tense.
Tense is one of those things we don’t really think about when we write. The standard rule is to pick one (whether it be past, present or future) and STAY THERE, DAMMIT. Sure, there may be a few angst-ridden moments during that initial choice because what tense you pick can have a HUGE effect on the overall mood and tone of your story, but once you’ve made your choice it tends to be out of sight, out of mind. Not so with Gamerunner.
Events within the real world take place in past tense, the most popular choice for narratives. We’re used to reading in past tense so this gives us a familiar ‘oh cool, it’s storytime now’ solidity to the whole thing. By contrast, everything that takes place in a virtual reality is in present tense. Using present tense gives everything a sense of immediacy. Present tense makes us feel like we’re reading a screenplay to a movie. What we’re reading is happening RIGHT NOW and we’re TOTALLY WATCHING IT! By subtly switching tense while within a virtual reality, Collins gives that reality more vividness, more reality (for lack of a better word) than reality.
Typing the word ‘reality’ so much makes it sound and look really strange. Moving on.
Thus the novel’s mechanics reflect Rick’s worldview. Before the events of the novel, The Maze has been his reality. The real world is the place that he eats and sleeps in order to have enough energy to play the game. By changing tense we also get the feeling that the game is much more vivid and alive than reality. Which is something we can understand from our own, non-virtual reality games (There’s a reason some of gaming’s most enduring franchises tend to be really colourful and work on the logic of the insane: We love that shit. Reality is boring).
I’ve just finished Collins’s first novel The Traitor Game (and am mentioning it now so I’m not tempted to dedicate the next review completely to how much I love this book) which deals with a kid escaping from reality (these books are crazy thematically related, now I think on it) through an imaginary world he’s created with a friend. In that novel, the story of the real-world conflict is spliced with the story that takes place within that imaginary world. Once again, Collins uses tense to help distinguish the two and to help convey a sense of immediacy and realness to a place that is, essentially, not.
By breaking the rules of tense (I.e. ‘PICK ONE’) intentionally, Collins helps to define her protagonist and emphasise the importance and reality of The Maze at a basic, mechanical level that is subtle (I didn’t pick it up until I reread, trying to find something to talk about here) and yet really effective.
So what’s the difference between that and a sentence like:
‘He moved towards the window and turns to me to give me a ‘you-really-expect-me-to-see-a-giraffe-here-don’t-you’ look.’?
(We’ll ignore the fact that I’m not sure what that would look like. Maybe a raised eyebrow combined with a sporadic eye twitch? Doesn’t matter. We’re focussing on the tense change.)
Then why is Collins’s tense change an example of mechanics helping to tell a story while the above sentence is just wrong? It’s all to do with intention. Within her tense changes, Collins is consistent. When we’re in the virtual reality EVERYTHING is in present tense and when we’re in the real world EVERYTHING is in past. She know what she’s doing and why. However, in my sentence, the tense change has no purpose and is either there because I’m not sure how tense works or I didn’t proof read. Neither is particularly flattering towards me and there is no intent behind the change. It’s just there.
Gamerunner is a perfect example of ‘knowing the rules in order to break them’. Breaking rules that you don’t know about generally leads to destroying your readers’ immersion in your story. However, knowing the rules and breaking them for a reason can lead to even greater immersion. By breaking the rules of tense with purpose, Collins doesn’t disrupt the reading experience but instead draws the reader further into her world.
I loved Gamerunner and I loved Traitor Game. B R Collins is quickly becoming one of my favourite authors. Not to mention that while I was stalking her online to feed my initial obsession with Gamerunner I came upon her blog and an entry where she talks about how she likes fanfiction. Also, how she’s writing a sequel to Gamerunner RIGHT NOW(Which I’m mega-super-excited about). If you’ve got a chance, try to track down her books. Totally worth it.
Next time I’m looking at Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels Trilogy.