Soda Pop Soldier essentially takes the e-sports concept (DOTA 2, Starcraft, etc.) that offers the promise of making buckets of money by playing video games to talented gamers, and mixes it up with a heavy dose of corporatization (well, a heavier dose than it already has) and a heaping serving of teenage boy wish fulfillment.
See, gamer PerfectQuestion (yes, that’s his name) fights for ColaCorp in an online wargame called WarWorld, where other megacorporations battle each other for dominance in the real world of advertising. That’s right: somehow, these mega-companies have agreed to tie the possibility of advertising on, say, the Times Square Jumbotron to the level of success a bunch of gamers have in a virtual Modern Warfare-style war game. At the same time, the battles are broadcast successfully to millions of viewers, who even have the chance to be recruited as temporary soldiers in the online battles.
As the story gets started, PerfectQuestion (MAN did I get sick of that name after a few pages) isn’t doing too well. His team is getting its collective asses whupped by that of the competing corporation. They are strongly urged to reverse the tide in the next big showdown, lest they find themselves fired and replaced by newer, better gamers. So it’s fight well or unemployment for PQ.
At the same time, PerfectQuestion’s girlfriend Sancerré has just walked out on him (and PQ strongly suspects she’s cheating on him with someone more successful), the rent is due, and PQ mainly finds solace in large amounts of booze.
In desperation, he spends some of his dwindling savings on access to the Black, a separate (and illegal) online gamespace that’s presented as a more immersive version of Diablo (complete with torture fantasies and so on) and holds out the promise of rich real-world monetary rewards, but also holds all kinds of danger. Gradually, it becomes clear that PQ may have gotten involved in a much larger plot …
And that’s pretty much all you need to know about Soda Pop Soldier. The novel’s blurb bills it as “Call of Duty meets Ready Player One,” and while I haven’t read Ready Player One (yet), I’m fairly sure that that novel stands head and shoulders above the mess that is Soda Pop Soldier. Overlong virtual battle scenes in the corporate WarWorld alternate with meandering virtual fantasy scenes in the Black, punctuated by brief intervals in reality that read like poor noir-for-noir’s-sake. The whole thing’s held together by an annoying whinebucket of a protagonist and barely managed to hold my interest until the end.
Positives? Well, I really liked the main character’s (mostly off-screen) girlfriend’s name: Sancerré. Pretty, right? Sadly she’s mostly off-screen and consistently portrayed as a cheating gold-digger who left PQ because he couldn’t keep her in luxury as promised. Other positives? Some of the interactions between PQ and his online gaming buddies were well done. There’s a section when a squad of fighters who model themselves on characters from the Aliens movies join in; PQ has no idea about those movies which leads to some fun inside jokes. And um … well, that’s about all I’ve got in terms of positive.
I really can’t recommend Soda Pop Soldier, unless you have a strong yen to read a book that feels like the masturbatory fantasy of a teenage gamer. I finished it, mainly out of a stubborn curiosity to see where it would end, but spent most of the time annoyed at various aspects of the novel. Two stars out of five on my personal scale, because some of the combat scenes were decently written, but mostly this is a missed opportunity.
(And on a final note: that title? And that cover? Yikes.)