INTO THE REAL Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Alexander Wallace gets real.
It still feels strange to me that video games have entered the public consciousness to the extent they have in the past decade or so. Growing up in the 2000s they were misunderstood at best and blamed for mass shootings at worst, and nobody in the media really cared to correct that. It took Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Free Guy to really impose upon me their ubiquity. Now, we have two renowned science fiction writers tackling the concept in the 2022 novel from Baen books by the name of Into the Real by John Ringo and Lydia Sherrer.

Into the Real reminded me of one particular film: 2011’s Real Steel. Both are essentially narratives that take the typical sports story plot and graft onto it some sort of technological marvel. In Real Steel, it’s combat mecha, and in Into the Real, it’s virtual reality gaming, something like Counterstrike or another one of those big shooter games renowned for their multiplayer.

Into the Real shares with Real Steel a trait that is both a benefit and a drawback. Since this is a sports story, you can essentially telegraph the course of the next plot beat given the last major development. Your teenage character falls in love with the sport, is offered a chance to succeed, has conflict with her mother, and navigates the complexities of adolescent friendship groups all the while. Those wanting a daring new plot or the sense of wonder that comes from great science fictional reimaginings of technology will be disappointed, but those who want tried-and-true stories of youth and perseverance will be satisfied.

Ringo and Sherrer succeed most of all with their characters. Your lead, a teenage girl with a talent for these sorts of shooter games, is well realized and given believable problems from age and socioeconomic background. Her family life is quietly sad, not the tragedy of soap operas but the daily grind of many Americans. Her friends, likewise, feel like actual teenagers and not merely cutouts for adults to expound morality tales unto teenage readers.

What mars an otherwise enjoyable novel is the frankly dated method of coining terminology that Ringo and Sherrer use, which is based on a fundamentally dated view of what being a teenager is like. Into the Real is permeated with the sort of social hierarchy that existed in 1980s high school movies, which were themselves questionable transpositions of 1950s high school life some decades later. There’s a ‘popular’ crowd composed of ‘pop-boys’ and ‘pop-girls,’ totally at odds with the very decentralized cliques that I and my contemporaries experienced, at least at a suburban high school in the early 2010s like I did. Furthermore, there’s the common misconception of ‘gaming’ as a skill in and of itself; Civilization requires different skills from Counterstrike which requires different skills from Minecraft, a nuance that Ringo and Sherrer neglect. Unfortunately, as someone whose earliest memories of gaming were racing games and pinball on my father’s computer as a three-year-old in the early 2000s, the authors come off as adults who really just don’t get gaming, as a pastime and as a culture, and it tested my suspension of disbelief.

Into the Real probably should have been classified as a YA book. When viewed through that lens, it is a perfectly serviceable coming-of-age tale with enjoyable characters. Unfortunately, it is held back by an understanding of gaming that comes off as that of those who did not grow up playing video games. It is not perfect, but it was enjoyable for what it was.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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