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Slum Online (Novel) Paperback – 29 Apr 2010
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About the Author
Hiroshi Sakurazaka was born in 1970. After a career in information technology, he published his first novel Wizards' Web in 2003. His 2004 short story Saitama Chainsaw Massacre won the 16th SF Magazine Reader's Award. His other novels include Characters (co-written with Hiroki Azuma) and All You Need is KILL, which was published by Haikasoru in 2009.
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Where the book falls down is its plot - it's difficult to follow at times and the ending will likely leave you feeling unfulfilled. But where the novel succeeds is through a constant sense of atmosphere - it's written with a clinical style that's frighteningly distant at times; capturing the atrophied emotions and psychological meanderings of an individual more at home in a virtual world than the real one. So, ultimately, a far from perfect work - but one that will leave you with plenty to chew over once it's finished, especially if you're a gamer yourself.
In the story, our protagonist Etsuro plays an online RPG called Versus Town, where players go to fight with others around the country in order to win first place in the annual fighting tournament. Unfortunately, a mystery player known as Ganker Jack starts challenging the top four players of the game and beats them one by one. Etsuro, in a bid to discover who this Ganker Jack is, eventually draws the player into a fight that will decide once and for all who is the best in Versus Town.
While the writing is consistent, and, on occasion, quite humorous, what really lets the narrative down is the moment we switch from RL to in-game scenery, Due to the way that Versus Town is designed, there is very little variation in the gaming environment in comparison to what the author so aptly describes for RL; therefore, whenever the author goes back to detailing scenes with Etsuro and his girlfriend or other scenes where Etsuro inhabits a city landscape, the narrative distinctly comes to life, which makes me feel reluctant to read in-game parts of the novel.
I think another reason for this is down to the fact that the fight scenes aren't very captivating as a whole.- they're just a list of button combinations. Although it's easy enough to visualise what the characters are doing in-game (more so if you're familiar with beat-em-up gaming), you don't feel like you're connected to the action at all and it gets incredibly tiresome, reading all of these fights that mean absolutely nothing. And it's the same as well with the constant reference to sound FX. I know the author is trying to portray what it's like in the head of a gamer, but it's not really like that, even if you're hardcore! There used to be times where I all ever did was play computer games, but I never once went outside and saw my neighbours as NPCs or imagined a health bar floating over my head or disengaging with the real world to the point that even the sound of birds singing could only be described as sound FX! That isn't a realistic portrayal of gamers, and the author seems kind of juvenile with his approach, thinking a university student would have such a stunted imagination...
While I liked the relationship Etsuro has with the 'girlfriend' (can't remember her name now), their relationship receives little to no decent emotional development. I don't think a clever girl like her could endure a relationship where all they do is sit together in lectures and take notes, then drag each other around the city looking for blue cat graffiti. Fair enough if such a relationship can exist, but I needed something more concrete than what I was getting from Etsuro in Versus Town, especially since he barely explored the one friendship he had with Jun in Hokkaido (must say that was better handled in the bonus chapters) and doesn't bother to form meaningful relations with other players.
Like other readers commented, the novel touches on some issues without fully exploring them and I think the whole argument between whether to invest in the real world or retreat into gaming could have been so much more. I know Etsuro pulls himself back from becoming a shut-in like Jun, but how did he come to this rationalisation? Was there something out there that meant a little bit more than simply staying inside and playing that computer game? Jun himself expresses envy and amazement at how someone like Etsuro can still function as a top-class fighter without compromising RL commitments. So why didn't the author delve more into that and bring us full circle?
After reading "All You Need Is Kill", I'm extremely disappointed with "Slum Online" and kind of wish I'd returned it instead of reading on in the hopes it would slowly get better instead of steadily getting worse. Perhaps I'm too 'old' for this novel and the audience it was written for, but this novel would probably make a good point of reference for a student in the future, say, two or three centuries from now, in case they don't do gaming at all and want to know what 21st century players were like? I don't recommend "Slum Online" at all, unless you want a really light read that will disappear from your brain shortly after finishing.
As for an insight into Japanese culture? Er, no. Try actually visiting the country or talking to a few Japanese. This novel will only mislead you!
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