Ages ago I read what was – at the time, for a younger self – a “groundbreaking” book by Neal Stephenson called Snow Crash. It was an interesting blend of real and virtual word technothriller, had some interesting ideas, a fun opening chapter, and despite putting out a number of books I’ve gladly reread like *Anathem, *SC did not age well. Mostly for it’s self-awareness, as demonstrated most clearly by the name of our viewpoint character, Hiro Protagonist.

Nick Cole’s Soda Pop Soldier gets compared a lot to Ready Player One but I think this is another case of people who truly haven’t read anything before [a few years back] and think there were no [women | whatever] in science fiction and fantasy in the past. SPS is what Snow Crash should’ve been, without the nudge-wink self-awareness and digressions into ancient languages.

We meet our protagonist, PerfectQuestion as he attempts to pull some form of victory, or at least less than a total loss, as he’s not only a tournament player, but online team games are a method to settle legal and other disputes – another aspect borrowed from elsewhere – and he’s not only protecting his own reputation but that of his sponsoring company. But things have been going badly in game after game, he’s having problems making rent, his girl is off to do god knows what as she wants a “better life”, and in desperation he logs into a highly illegal sandbox game universe to acquire some real life wealth.

He quickly discovers that the real world is out to get him too, and becomes enmeshed in a thriller where the fields of contention are not only the officially sanctioned tournaments, but the shadow game world, and reality. And death is all too real a prospect. Along the way he is offered faustian deals, and tries to solve the puzzle before him while keeping his honor intact – including his loyalty to the drink company that hired him.

The world described in short and brief strokes is vivid and breathes with life. The characters stand out. Nicks ability to pull at your emotions and play them is in full display here. We’ve got world-spanning aircraft that never (intentionally) land, almost dystopic undercities, a world-spanning virtual network, corrupt businessmen, the whole nine yards. Yet we don’t get the sense the world around PQ is a hopeless morass. While some people are evil, greedy, whatever, others can be trusted and loved. Businesses can be corrupt and greedy, but others are honest.

And standing fast to honor and purpose is a worthy thing.