Review: Ghosts in the Machine, ed. Lana Polansky and Brendan Keogh

Book: Ghosts in the Machine: A Short Story Anthology
Authors: Ashton Raze, Ian Miles Cheong, Denis Farr, Maddy Myers, Lana Polansky, Matt Riche, Rollin Bishop, Dylan Sabin, Alois Wittwer, Shelley Du, Alan Williamson, Aevee Bee, Ryan Morning
Year: 2013

Summary: Short story fiction anthology themed around video game glitches. Some neat ideas, but uneven writing quality.

ghosts

I debated a bit whether to include (video game related) fiction in my book reviews but I’ve decided to go ahead and do it since there’s a big overlap between game developers and sci-fi fans.

Ghosts in the Machine is a short story collection edited by Lana Polansky and Brendan Keogh and published as an ebook (though there’s also a paperback you can get from Amazon). It original piqued my interest because I recognize a number of the names – not for their fiction but for their excellent nonfiction games criticism and journalism. Normally I put author summaries next to their names, but these authors come from wide mix of independent developers, journalists, video game critics, writers, and so on. There’s 13 stories in total and, as far as I can tell, they haven’t been published anywhere else. Some of the stories are very short – three or four pages – while others are a bit longer. None of them get into novelette category, though, and I found it easy enough to read one or two before bed every night.

First off, I am way more critical of fiction than most people so I’m not the best judge of whether something has popular appeal (i.e. I hated Ready Player One, so keep that in mind). I felt that these stories needed a very heavy hand of an editor to craft them into a better shape because as they exist they probably wouldn’t have gotten through the slush pile at a more traditional sci-fi magazine. Even as someone who knows a ton about video games, I found myself often confused with a new story that was full of video game jargon and difficult-to-follow references to games I may or may not have ever played since the game itself was never mentioned or only alluded to with fictional names. In other situations, I felt the authors were too heavy-handed with the story, “telling” too much instead of “showing”, not letting subtleties breathe through the text, or moving between game-world characters to real world characters in jarring ways that broke my immersion.

All that said – it’s unfair to compare it to a highly edited commercial work, and I try to judge a book based on its intended audience. This is a collection of short fiction¬†about games written for people who play games and by people who obviously love games and think deeply about them. This sort of blend is really unusual – I’m not sure there are any similar collections out there – and that in itself makes it worth considering. Several of the stories read from the point of view of characters within a game world who attempt to make sense of the system programming they inhabit, or dealing with glitches that give them (or the reader) a terrifying glimpse behind the curtain.

A handful of stories have really stuck with me (with the above caveats) and are worth checking out if you are interested in them.

  • “Unto Dust” by Maddy Meyers is a story from the point of view of characters in a multiplayer shooter with hacking exploits being used by players.
  • “All Time Heroes” by Matte Riche is a dystopian insight into a culture where your social worth is controlled by your score in a virtual video game. It would fit nicely into a universe like Ready Player One.
  • “Slow Leak” by Rollin Bishop was my favorite of the bunch, about the last character standing in an MMO that has been abandoned as its servers are shut off one by one.
  • “See You On The Other Side” by Shelley Du is a horrifying look at the life of JRPG characters during reload screens that appears to take a page from “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” (or perhaps unintentionally inspired by it).

I don’t really recommend the book for people looking for excellent video game related fiction since the execution felt really uneven. However, there are some interesting ideas sprinkled in it so if you get your hands on it (mine came with a video game StoryBundle I bought) then it’s worth paging through.