Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher as part of the Harper Voyager Super Reader program. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.
“I’m not a fighter. I don’t mistake my online rapacious violence with my real-life code of non-violence, which isn’t so much a code but more of an excuse for not being the toughest guy in the world and all of the problems that comes with. I don’t make that mistake.”
The gamer known by the handle PerfectQuestion, or Question for short, is a professional paid to play WarWorld for ColaCorp. The ColaCorp team is waging a virtual battle against the WonderSoft squad, with rights to important advertising spaces determined by the outcome. ColaCorp has been losing steadily, and Question is struggling to pay the rent on his New York apartment, and worried that another loss in WarWorld will mean losing his professional status in addition to his home. To make ends meet, he picks up a prohibited game chip for the Black, an illegal open source online game that employs the very technology that was responsible for creating the dystopia Question now lives in. There are riches to be had by playing the Black game, but the world of Westhaven is also home to the internet’s sickest and most twisted fantasies, and comes with no guarantees that Question can even earn back his buy in. With fingers in both pies, Question discovers just how deeply each type of gaming is intertwined with the world economy when he finds himself caught between two powerful opposing forces that try to manipulate his choices in the games by coming after him in the real world.
Soda Pop Solider also demonstrates strong Noir influences, with Nick Cole citing Raymond Chandler as a major influence on the work. Certainly Question operates on a particular code of honour that emphasizes fairness but does not always align with the law. Nor are the women of Soda Pop Soldier to be trusted. Question’s girlfriend, Sancerré, is less of a character than an absence, her disappearances and probable philandering being just one more aspect of Question’s life that is falling apart. He suspects she is cheating on him, but doesn’t really want to know. We barely get a glimpse of what might have brought them together and once made their relationship good, so there is not much reason to care about it as it falls apart. Of course, Question himself is more than a little preoccupied by his fascination with RiotGuuurl, the only woman on his pro gaming team, and can hardly be held blameless. Unfortunately, RiotGuuurl doesn’t fare much better than Sancerré.
Although set in a dystopian world with science fiction characteristics, there is a strong focus on the gaming aspect of Soda Pop Soldier, with the majority of the story spent in one of the two game worlds. This results in a limited amount of world-building outside the game, though we learn a lot about both WarWorld and Westhaven. Nick Cole uses familiar short-cuts for creating a future corporate dystopia, such as combining the names of large corporations, as in MasterVisa or McBucks. Question’s convenient enthusiasm for turn-of-the-millennium entertainment allows Cole to make pop culture references that will be familiar to a contemporary audience. We do learn that open source was the cause of the downfall, but gain no hint of how. This book is much more for those who like to read about game-play and strategy, with something for those who like first-person shooters, as well as for those who prefer swords and sorcery roleplaying games. Cole describes WarWorld as a combination of Call of Duty and Battlefield, backed up by his own military experience. The Black game is “World of Warcraft meets the seedier side of Vegas.” However, the choice to leave the world relatively mysterious does leave ample room for a sequel.