The Demi-Monde: Winter (2011) is the first in a four book series by debut author Rod Rees. The book's eponymous location is a virtual world of breathtaking intricacy. Powered by a "quantum computer" named ABBA, the Demi-Monde is circular plane populated by thirty million "Dupes", or virtual recreations of real-world figures. The Dupes mingle, interact and go about their everyday lives, powered by a heuristic AI that makes them, for all practical and fictional purposes, real.
The Demi-Monde is no paradise. Much the reverse - it was created by the US military as a way of training soldiers for asymmetrical warfare. From its outset, the virtual world was put under immense social pressures: not enough space, religious friction, racial tension and resource issues (they all drink blood - lovely). And as its crowning achievement, the programmers populated the Demi-Monde with historical, once-in-a-generation, charismatic, terrifying leaders. Ivan the Terrible, Empress Wu, Beria, Henry VIII, etc. And below them rests a huge bureaucracy of minor psychopaths - notorious charmers like Aleister Crowley, for example.
The result? A pretty shitty place to live.
Or even, as Ella Thomas finds out, to visit.
Ella is a down-and-out 18-year-old jazz singer with a lousy boyfriend (husband? brother? We never meet him) and no money. When the military offers her five million dollars to bounce into the Demi-Monde and save the President's daughter, she gladly accepts. Of course, there's a catch or two. As well as the Demi-Monde being an awful place, it is a lethal place. If you die in the Demi-Monde, you die. Or, worse yet, you don't die - forced to live forever as a blood-cow for the occult-fascist ForthRight.
(The Nazi "ForthRight" is only one of the many hundreds of ridiculous puns and malapropisms that litter The Demi-Monde. HimPerialists, HerEticalism, ImPuritanism, LessBiens, Suffer-O-Gettes, WhoDoo, CheckyaPoints abound. It is less "Orwellian" than "strained".)
Ella leaps in and immediately finds herself in the middle of utter chaos. The ForthRight are planning the conquest of one of their neighbouring sectors, Crowley is scheming something occult and dubious with the captured Norma (the Presidential princess) and, generally speaking, the world of the Demi-Monde isn't a great place for a young African-American woman, even if she is talented and beautiful. (Very beautiful. If you ever forget how beautiful she is, wait a page and you'll be reminded.)
The battle against the ForthRight encompasses several other viewpoint characters as well. Norma the Presidential princess initially comes across as a fairly savvy young lady - eluding her captors, gathering information, generally being self-reliant and interesting. However, Norma's personality in her own narrative is dramatically different to the one which we see from the other viewpoint characters. She's a pain in the ass, unnecessarily cruel to the Dupes, shockingly rude to Ella and weirdly stupid.
Trixie Dashwood manages to be inconsistent in a completely different way. She's a sixteen year old Dupe with a "pert bottom", the daughter of Algernon "The Hellfire Club" Dashwood. She begins as a precocious and marginally rebellious adolescent in the upper echelons of the ForthRight, but, as the story progresses, she goes through a variety of character changes. She starts as a budding young scientist ("RaTionalist") and feminist ("HerEtic"). Then she becomes (in no particular order) a leader in the rebellion of the Polish ghetto, an expert riverboat pilot, a crack shot, strategic mastermind, a racist and a serial killer. The girl that starts the book choked up at up at the loss of her childhood friend and gasping whenever anyone curses finishes it by executing her own officers and plotting the murder of her rivals. There's no graceful arc to Trixie's change - at one point she just grabs a gun and starts shooting.
For the minor characters, The Demi-Monde also relies largely on archetypes - and stereotypes - to get the job done. There's a certain amount of (I hope) intentional irony in here. This is a virtual world populated by virtual beings, all drawn from a super-computer's sketchy profiling. People would be rendered into archetypes, that's how the system would work, right? The settlers in Civilization 2 all looked the same - this is the next (QUANTUM) step in NPCs. That said, it is hard to read past the Italian Dupe saying "Itta gettin' much awful late, Miss Trixiebell. Message from your father wassa that you should be home by the soonest time..." (29). Or the Cockney Dupe: "I can't say nuffint abart it, okay?" Then he taps the side of his nose (123). Of course.
Of course, with Ella - who is not a Dupe - there's no excuse at all, making much of her early dialogue particularly ridiculous. "I ain't going. You think I'm going to let you drop me in the middle of Racism de Ville? Once those bastards spot my black ass I'm gonna have the life expectancy of a fruit fly. How do they dress in this ForthRight of yours: white robes and pointy hats? Do they have funny names like Mr Ku and Mrs Klux?" (90) This is after she's been introduced as a borderline-genius IQ with a substantial amount of education (high school, with reference made to her law and sociology classes). But then, midway through the book, Ella's magically transformed into a worldly stage performer and, by the end, she's a Messianic figure with the finest Received Pronunciation. After the first few chapters, there's not a "gonna" or "ain't" in sight.
Admittedly, much of this is a pet peeve. "Gonnas", "wassas" and "nuffints" have always struck me as lazy characterisation. Mark Twain and Sir Walter Scott were able to guide readers through the quagmire of transliterated dialects, but only because they had powerful (and often surprising) characters behind them. (Ok, maybe not Scott.) In this case, they're cheap laughs. Or, worse yet, evidence that the author is hearing a character that's at odds with the way they're writing them. There's a collapse of show and tell, as the author is trying to outfit their character in ways that they don't themselves see.
The characters are only one facet of the awkward inconsistency that runs across the entire book. The Demi-Monde never firmly establishes the rules of the setting. From Ella's first moments in the virtual world, we learn that there's 'something wrong' with the computer. And as the land of the Demi-Monde steadily unfolds, it becomes clear that the environment (or ABBA) has a mind of its own. But the reader never learns what or how. Sometimes things work and sometimes things don't work. Ella has a magical computer chip that means she knows everything. Except when she doesn't. Her computer can read Aleister Crowley's bank account password by touching him, but fizzes out when she needs to find her way out of the sewers. There's no pattern to the inconsistency, except for what furthers the plot. And that's all before the magic gets involved.
It gets extra-silly when Ella learns that she has "admin rights" to the world. Merely by logging in to one of the Demi-Monde's computer terminals, she can reprogram the world - a case of deus ex machina so horrific that Horace is spinning in his grave. The author reins in Ella's omnipotence with the clunky mechanic of time constraints. Whenever she's near one of the computer terminals that gives her absolute power, she's chased off by gunmen immediately after accomplishing the next chapter's set-up. Rather than do the logical thing "Dear computer, alt-delete-gunmen", she'll fall back to plan B ("Quick, to the hot air balloon!"). By the end of the book, she's as far as possible from a computer terminal because, well, else it'd all just be a bit too easy. There's not a lot of rational behaviour in The Demi-Monde, but there are a lot of insane knee-jerk reactions, breast jokes and, above all else, explosions.
Believe it or not, all of this is actually (somewhat) forgivable as The Demi-Monde is a shamelessly gung-ho romp - the Will It Blend? approach to history, cyberpunk, magic and Modern Warfare 3.
The characters, the world, the plot - everything is constructed in a way that barrels one set-piece sequence headlong into the next. As long as the reader doesn't pause to think, The Demi-Monde succeeds as an entertaining story, just not a wholly coherent one. The actual world-building is fun, and the whole concept is so charmingly earnest that the book is tough to hold to task. Imagine a high school improv group's enthusiastic attempt to earn extra credit in their World History course: noisy, funny and occasionally offensive. It isn't great theatre, but it might just be enough for a passing grade.
By Jared (@pornokitsch) who shoulda writda revoo lika dees to geev it da charactor, ey?