In Infinite Game—a virtual world that spans the globe with varying lands, missions, and levels of difficulty—Ashley Akachi is Ashura the Terrible, leader of the SunJewel Warriors. Her all-women team is one of the best, constantly pulling off impressive feats and racking up prizes, money, status and the occasional death threat.
In the real world, Ash lives in Ditchtown, formerly Miami, a run-down city where hackers, Gamers, and the low-income class gather, making the most of their lives on and off the ‘Net. Ash has to deal with her brother Kiro growing distant and more obsessed with the Game, and making enough money to take care of her mother, an ex-solider, in intensive rehab, all while keeping a low profile from angry Gamers.
While running a side job for Sawyer, one of the members of the current government, Ash has a run-in with an old team member that goes awry and discovers a plot that can throw Ditchtown and other sectors into turmoil once more. Now it’s up to her and the legendary SunJewel Warriors to pull off one more encounter before the Game gets too real.
[Mild spoilers ahead]
Kluwe combines gaming, social issues and political tensions in this action-packed cyberpunk thriller. The post-war society Kluwe has created doesn’t feel too far off from our current one, with religious and government factions at odds with each other, and the wealthy inhabiting the nicer parts of town, while others are struggling to make ends meet.
The one great unifier is the ‘Net, which everyone is plugged into one way or the other. Otaku’s main focus is on the Gamers, the population of players who plug in through the ‘Net and use AR/VR tech known as hapsuits and haptic chambers to play in realtime. Gamers can spend hours racking up skills and points and eschewing a social life, to the point where they’re derisively nicknamed otaku.
But Kluwe turns the concept of a useless Gamer on its head, with the reveal that the Gamers have essentially trained themselves as soldiers with all their in-game encounters and experience. With the new hapsuits hitting the market that make the real feel like the Game, it’s a terrifying prospect with catastrophic results.
The “safe space” of the internet, or the idea of a safe space on the internet is touched upon throughout the book as well, tied up with identity and specifically, a woman’s identity. The protagonist, Ashley Akachi, is a mixed WoC who makes a living as a Gamer and is a successful woman in a mainly male space. Ashley finds solace in the Game, even if she has to put up with misogynists, as it allows her to drop the worries of the real, even if for a few hours, and she can be in control. But because Ash is a woman, she faces very real threats of harassment—a point of contention between herself and her brother, Kiro, who believes she has a victim complex. Harassment of womxn online is a very real thing, and Kluwe highlights this issue with his portrayal of Ash’s antagonizers. Thankfully, Ash is a character who can stand up for herself and has the muscle strength to prove it, so a showdown scene between her and her would-be assaulters proves to be very cathartic for readers.
Additionally, Ash is able to navigate the ‘Net to private servers, where she can’t be traced, to spend quality time with her boyfriend Hamlin. This touches upon another hot-button topic of the internet, one of security, privacy, and safety. Ash lives in one of the less safe neighborhoods of Ditchtown, in part because it’s cheap, but also so that harassers and stalkers won’t figure out her address. Privacy is a big enough concern that a whole sub ‘Net exists for blackmarket deals and people who don’t trust the internet—one the “gummies” are willing to overlook in their favor, but is also brings up the question of what information is at corporate and gummie disposal in exchange for access to the latest game.
It’s hard not to think of Ghost in the Shell while reading Otaku¸ but that might just come with the territory of sci-fi/cyberpunk genre work, and especially when the book is titled as such. And while GitS’s influence is present in this novel—plugging into private networks with untraceable avatars, digital sex work, and military-grade weapons training—the similarities end there, and Otaku inhabits its own space. Otaku grapples with the question of identity and personhood in a digital space, but on a much larger, global scale. Considering that society today continues to shift towards a digital existence—storage on the cloud, internet personas, data leaks and cyberbullying—this book addresses a very real fear about repercussions and consequences from a virtual world crossing over into the physical world.
Otaku is available from Tor Books.
Gabriella Tutino is a NYC-based freelance court reporter, writer and book reviewer. Her work appears on Tor.com, Comics MNT, the US Review of Books, and Highbrow Magazine. Her favorite topics are mythology, anime, and fashion. You can find her travel blog here and follow her on Twitter @gabriellatutino.