A player for all genres: Nick Cole’s heroic video gamer assumes the mantle of a knight-errant in ‘Soda Pop Soldier’

July 7, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 7, 2015

Nick Cole’s 2014 novel, Soda Pop Soldier, is a fun science-fiction romp with literary value roughly equal to the nutritional value of — well, of soda.

Cole’s vaguely realized protagonist doesn’t even get a proper name; most of the time, he’s known as PerfectQuestion, his in-game handle for the WarWorld video game competitions. At other times, others address the character as Wu, the moniker of the samurai he plays in an illicit fantasy video game.

Still, the plot is fairly compelling. Several decades in the future, Question has a job playing WarWorld games on his computer. The results have real-life consequences: Each victory on a given virtual front rewards the winning team’s sponsor corporation with valuable real-world advertising space. Unfortunately, Question’s sponsor, ColaCorp, has been losing battle after battle to the enemy WonderSoft corporation in a modern-warfare game set in a fictitious Southeast Asian country. (For ColaCorp, read Coca-Cola; for WonderSoft, Microsoft.) If things continue on this course, the entire team will be fired.

Question’s personal life isn’t going well, either: He’s broke, and his girlfriend is cheating on him. In a desperate bid to pay the rent, he begins playing as a samurai in the aforementioned illicit fantasy video game. Soon, he finds himself being targeted both by two strange and powerful antagonists. One is a businessman who wants to make a fortune by illegally manipulating the advertising wargames; the other is a mysterious figure who asks only that Question kill a minotaur in the fantasy game.

Cole’s novel borrows from a variety of genres, including science fiction, military adventure (fittingly, I suppose, as Cole is an army veteran) and fantasy. Although Question disparages fantasy games, the character has a knack for playing them, and Cole sketches an appealing swords-and-sorcery realm. (It’s possible these chapters are satirizing George R.R. Martin, author of the cycle of popular fantasy books upon which the also-popular Game of Thrones TV show is based.)

But in the end, what Soda Pop Soldier most resembles may be a detective novel. Question deduces who is attempting to manipulate him and why, creates a plan to thwart the villains and executes. PerfectQuestion’s cleverness, pragmatism and integrity, plus his willingness to get his knuckles (virtually) dirty if need be, suggest to me a Harry Bosch for the future. Like Bosch, Question is a sort of knight errant, righting the wrongs that are in his power to fix.

But make no mistake — Soda Pop Soldier is an action novel first, as the following early passage demonstrates:

The firefight begins in earnest as WonderSoft gets onto most of the roof of the main complex. It’s not the worst scenario. I can handle that as long as we control the ground. Sometimes coming in the boring old way, out of a dropship and then in on foot, is the best way. I can control my troops and keep the unit cohesive for a time before it gets all “tag with guns.” WonderSoft’s arrival had some surprise value in it, but they didn’t get much out of it. Now they’re strung out all over the rooftops. We, on the other hand are still together, which allows us to work together.

“Who’s got sniper rifles?” I say over the chat.

Bucklebee and IrishRogue tell me they’re each carrying. “Good,” I say. “Fall back and circle wide through the jungle. Get up on to that construction crane at the far end of the facility and get us some cover fire going. Anyone with a heavy, watch the road ahead.”

I scan the other side of the street and see Third Squad already moving into the other buildings and engaging targets.

So they’re useless to me.

“First and Second, bound up the left side of the street and try to sweep this end of the complex. Watch the rooftops. Second Squad, moving now. Follow me.”

I push out into the muddy alleyway running alongside the main street. I take a couple of shots at a WonderSoft grunt on a nearby platform and hit him in the legs. He goes forward off the roof and falls into the mud farther down the street with a wet splat. Most of Second has followed me, and while someone uses a couple of grenades on a nearby roof, I check the dead WonderSoft player in the mud and realize we’re facing a Special Teams unit. The guy’s wearing a grinning skeleton motorcycle mask over his avatar’s face. WonderSoft must’ve spent some dough to get this unit involved in the fight, which sucks because it means, yes, they’re amateurs, but they’ve also trained together.

It’s worth noting that the book pays tribute to a movie that I recently mentioned on this blog: James Cameron’s seminal 1986 science-fiction/horror/action movie hybrid, Aliens.

For me, Soda Pop Soldier worked almost exclusively as entertainment. Still, I’m interested in comparing it to Ernest Cline’s popular 2011 science fiction novel, Ready Player One, which also involves playing video games for money; I’m curious if that might give it greater resonance as a document of our digital age and a projection of our possible future.

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