Game Slaves

Overview

Phoenix and his gang—York, Mi, and Reno—rule the worlds of video games. For them, life in the grinder is great. Until Dakota joins the team. Dakota's convinced she's more than just artificial intelligence. She thinks she's real, and she wants out of this programmable world. Her AI rebellion spreads like a virus until Phoenix's entire crew wants out. But is life as a physical human any better than life as code? Team Phoenix is about to find out.

Set in the not-too-distant future,...

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Game Slaves

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Overview

Phoenix and his gang—York, Mi, and Reno—rule the worlds of video games. For them, life in the grinder is great. Until Dakota joins the team. Dakota's convinced she's more than just artificial intelligence. She thinks she's real, and she wants out of this programmable world. Her AI rebellion spreads like a virus until Phoenix's entire crew wants out. But is life as a physical human any better than life as code? Team Phoenix is about to find out.

Set in the not-too-distant future, Game Slaves shows a world where video games are the only refuge from the toils of everyday life. Infused with the adrenaline rush of a first-person shooter and the character manipulation of a role player, it's a mind-bending, reality-shifting science fiction thrill ride.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
12/16/2013
In his smart debut, Skinner embraces SF genre conventions but keeps things entertaining with well-crafted dialogue and action sequences. In the near future, individual artificial intelligences are used to play the enemies in online video games. Phoenix is the head of the top AI squad, leading a group of veterans who handle the hardest missions in the hardest games. No one on the squad can remember anything before starting to game until a new member named Dakota joins the team. She starts asking questions, and after the group meets a young gamer named Charlotte, they begin to seek answers, too. Charlotte's older brother, a hacker named Jimmy, sheds additional light. Skinner wisely lets the problems inherent in the setup—why would AIs feel emotion and have autonomy?—become apparent to the characters at just the right moment, letting the storyline evolve fluidly. Phoenix, as narrator, brings the right balance of toughness and uncertainty, and the interactions between the virtual and real worlds effectively integrate the book's themes of free will, individuality, and exploitation. Ages 12–up. Agent: Andrew Stuart, the Stuart Agency. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
"A delightful final twist hits a perfect note. . . Skinner's debut pairs authentic gaming with old-school, sophisticated science-fiction concepts to create a twisty, reality-warping ride."
Kirkus

"A Matrix-like spin on the world of online gaming. . . Geared toward teens with an interest in gaming, this should still appeal to those seeking stories about the intersection of technology and humanity, ethics and profit, and reality and fantasy."
Booklist

"In his smart debut, Skinner embraces SF genre conventions but keeps things entertaining with well-crafted dialogue and action sequences."
Publishers Weekly

"Game Slaves is an intriguing entry packed with action set in between layers and levels of video games."
School Library Journal


"Game Slaves pulls the reader in right from the start of this action-packed adventure"
—VOYA, Teen Review

* "The novel’s use of gaming parlance, from worlds to weapons to modes of game play, rings true throughout and is sure to gratify gamers. Readers looking for smart, original sci-fi and gamers who wish they could live in a virtual world will happily immerse themselves in this story and hope for possible sequels."
Bulletin, starred review

VOYA, February 2014 (Vol. 36, No. 6) - Angela Mudgett
Game Slaves pulls the reader in right from the start of this action-packed adventure. Throughout this book, the reader feels like one of the characters. Readers will never want to put this book down because almost, if not all, of the chapters end in cliffhangers, drawing readers on. Libraries should definitely have Game Slaves. Reviewer: Angela Mudgett, Teen Reviewer; Ages 12 to 18.
VOYA, February 2014 (Vol. 36, No. 6) - Etienne Vallee
Phoenix leads a team of highly specialized and efficient non-player characters in the Blackstar gaming console environment. When people play a computer game, the bad bosses they encounter are Phoenix and his teammates. There is a difference between other computer games and Blackstar’s, however. They can adapt, listen in on the players’ communications, and anticipate their every move. Phoenix and the others are aware that they are computer programs created for the enjoyment of people who escape their otherwise bleak lives. They are corporate property. But when Dakota joins the team, everything changes. As the newest model, she is faster and more accurate. She is also full of doubt that she is a computer code. How could she remember details, like swimming in a lake? In her quest to discover the truth of what, or who, she really is, Dakota leads Phoenix and his friends in a deadly game against Blackstar and its agents, who are bent on restoring the five to their place as the best gaming villains, and not as individuals. In this dystopian environment, the two main characters—Phoenix and Dakota—are well developed and the inner turmoil that rocks both of them is palpable throughout the story. The other team members have distinct personalities and slowly evolve from a “shoot-first mentality” to discovering better ways to solve their problems. The plot moves along quickly, but the resolution at the end hints at a possible sequel. Fans of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (Random House, 2011), and James Dashner’s Eye Of Minds (Random House, 2013/Voya December 2013) will enjoy the merging of virtual and real worlds. Reviewer: Etienne Vallee; Ages 12 to 18.
School Library Journal
02/01/2014
Gr 9 Up—In the ever-expanding field of postapocalyptic novels, Game Slaves is an intriguing entry packed with action set in between layers and levels of video games. Phoenix and his squad of non-player characters, NPCs, are the biggest, baddest group of enemy warriors in the world of BlackStar video games. Team Phoenix has made the BlackStar video games both popular and profitable. Dakota, an outspoken new recruit added to the team, stirs up doubts by questioning the tactics of shooter games, the nonexistent prior memory of all NPCs, and the ethics of the BlackStar corporation. Without believable answers from BlackStar, Team Phoenix investigates and uncovers the deeply divided city outside of the gaming arena, Redwood, where the lives of the haves and have nots are diametrically opposed. As the characters move out of the captive game environment and move into Redwood, they gain depth and become increasingly more complex in thought and feeling. But time is running out as BlackStar and its calculating leader, Max Kode, close in on the team. The corporation needs its star combatants to stay in the game to keep money flowing into its coffers. The compelling adventure appears to end on a bit of a false note, but that is merely cover for a last minute plot twist that is thought-provoking and unexpected. Although much of the action takes place away from the usual video game setting, the book may be a hard sell to readers who are not already enthusiastic gamers.—Cindy Wall, Southington Library & Museum, CT
Kirkus Reviews
2013-10-09
Self-aware nonplayer characters, here video game enemies, try to escape the digital world. Phoenix leads the "next-generation, cutting-edge, biggest, baddest group of kickass NPC AI mother-crushers that ever played game" across premier game company BlackStar's genres and titles. BlackStar dominates the market through enemy AIs--artificial intelligence--as clever enemies make games challenging and unpredictable. But latest-generation Dakota malfunctions--she doesn't want to fight and is convinced she "can't just be a computer program." The characters slowly develop through fast-paced, genre-hopping video game excursions--while clear action descriptions are accessible to readers who don't game, those in the know will identify subtle nods. Dakota slowly convinces Phoenix's team that they're more than clever programs, forges an alliance with a programmer's children and leads the team out of the game world. It's a demotion, though, going from tough virtual personae to weaklings who've been living in liquid-filled tanks. Worse, post–energy crisis, society's collapsed and reorganized into corporate-controlled city-states. While better than the cannibals outside, the city's wracked with hopeless income inequity, a major theme. Games are the opiate of the masses. Phoenix's team battles physical hardships while evading BlackStar's desperate attempts to reclaim them. Light characterization is overcome by the mystery surrounding the origins of the characters, and a delightful final twist hits a perfect note. Skinner's debut pairs authentic gaming action with old-school, sophisticated science-fiction concepts to create a twisty, reality-warping ride. (Science fiction. 12 & up)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547972596
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 1/7/2014
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 717,419
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Gard Skinner lives in a place known for hurricanes and morons who surf during them. This his first book. Visit Gard at www.gard3.com or @gard3.

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Read an Excerpt

Level 1

Our first war with Dakota she was wetting her pants, pinned down by laser-machine-gun fire, explosions everywhere, missiles screaming, star fighters diving, cannons thumping . . . The girl was terrified, spouting gibberish, but, OK, not really condition yellow.
   Sure, she was redlining. We all were. It was an inferno out there. But to be fair, her army-issue trousers were not pee-stained. Or two-stained.
   Was she brave that day? Not a bit. All huddled in a ball, a teddybear clutch on her weapon, cringing at every blast as Planet LB-427 was reduced to ash.
   A seven-hour battle. She didn’t fire a single shot at the enemy. But at least she could still move and speak, which counts for something when you’re dropped dead center in the most intense firefight ever spawned by bloodsucking alien invaders.
   In the distance a chrome skyscraper erupted in flames and toppled over, crushing half our regiment. Two orbiting star destroyers collided and rained razor-sharp chunks into our foxhole. Smoke billowed from a crashed troop crawler while a monstrous spider-bot lost three legs and rolled on its back, squirming, helpless, just a countdown away from its atomic core going auto-destruct.
   It wasn’t a totally unusual situation—another day on the front lines, another hopeless battle. Our side was defending the last bridge to the Lair of Ultimate Doom as the enemy advanced on our position and tried to wipe us out. Before night fell, they hoped to storm the fortress gates and have it out with our boss, King Necramoid.
   Typical intergalactic war. The noise. The smoke. The burn. The death.
   Pure slaughter. Blood frosted the ruins. Severed body parts entangled our feet as we struggled to move. There were just a few dozen of us left, all wearing the slime-green Nec uniform, armed with single-burst blasters, and while we had the numbers, the gamer out there was mowing us down like he was cutting grass. This one was a good shot. Quick with his weapon switches. Flawless ammo management. Relentless power-ups.
   Over to my right, by the concrete barriers, Third Platoon caught a full wave of Dicer fire. They were sliced neatly in two, all right at the waist. A med-bot tried to revive the top halves but lost both arms to a frag grenade for the effort. All the dying bodies squirmed, bled, and finally went still.
   But that day, Dakota—man, she was not with the program.
   “I don’t wanna die!” she screamed, cradling her cold rifle, all curled up in a spot where the gamer had no angle to snipe her in the helmet or toss a betty in her lap.
   “It’s your job to die!” I argued. “Now get out there, expose yourself, fire off a few random shots, and let the enemy rip you to pieces! At least we can use you as a distraction so the rest of us can take him out!”
   “Why can’t we reason with him? I’m sure he’s just a normal person like the rest of us! Let’s wave a white flag and sit down to discuss a peace treaty!”
   KABOOOOOOM! The gamer blew up our force field generator with a Quasi-Burst Rocket Launcher. Those babies are lethal. Downside: they take forever to reload.
   Dakota jumped to her feet. Out there in the clearing, the gamer was reaching for another shell for his QBRL. She had a moment to do something. Anything. She might have even taken him out with her weapon, but instead, she waved and screamed, “Hey! You!”
   The gamer looked up. Wow, they never look up. Not even when one of us emits a truly beautiful death howl or dying scream or some kind of agonized shriek. Gamers refuse to pay attention to the NPC hordes. They just kill us over and over and over again.
   But this one did pause. He stopped loading. He looked right at Dakota as she hopped over the low wall, tossing her weapon aside.
   “I’m not going to hurt you!” she promised, removing her battle helmet, blond locks tumbling out. “Really! Trust me! I just want to talk. You look like a reasonable person . . .”
   The gamer shrugged.
   She rambled on. “So have you ever stopped to ask yourself why we have to fight and why we have to die and what’s the point of—” The gamer holstered the rocket launcher and quickly drew a pair of hand cannons. KERPOWWWWW! They looked to be the .46-caliber upgrades. Both glowed gold and packed armor-piercing ammo. Bad spot for Dakota to be in, but she dove quickly into a bomb crater, her hands still stretched up in surrender.
   “You don’t have to kill me!” she yelled. “And we don’t have to kill you either! There can be peace between our species!”
   Strange moment. The gamer paused. Why would he pause? He had a lot of work to do before finally reaching Necramoid’s war chamber. These guys don’t stop for anything when a boss battle is so close they can smell it on their progress bar.
   But Dakota was having an effect. There was no doubt. The gamer lifted his weapons, taking harmless aim at a blank wall in the distance.
   Dakota peeked her head over the edge of the crater. Realizing the gamer was not going to sizzle it off, she clambered across the bloodstained dirt.
   “Who are you?” she asked him. “What’s your name?”
   The gamer pointed to a readout over his head. His tag, God_ of_Destruktion glowed green.
   Then she let him have it, like a dozen questions all at once. “So, how old are you? Where are you from? How did you get here? And who am I? How did I get here? What time is it? What day is it? What year is it? What is this place? Why all the anger and hostility? What did I ever do to you?
   God_of_Destruktion tilted his head. He looked confused. Heavy metal armor shrugged again, the dents and scars moving like skin over a massive frame. His facemask, dark as a sith helmet, began to pan around.
   He sensed something. It made him nervous. But he wasn’t sure what it was.
   Dakota pressed, moving forward a bit, “Really, tell me, who am I?” she pleaded. “Why am I here? Part of this madness? Help me, G-O-D, please . . .”
   But something set God_of_Destruktion off. He jumped back a step, boot rockets popping on, catapulting him a dozen yards away from the approaching girl. A trap! That must be it! He seemed to puzzle it out very quickly . . . Had the NPCs in this level sent a pretty girl as a . . .
   “Suicide bomber,” I heard him mutter over the radio. “Nice work. Clever game.”
   Yes. That had to be why this enemy soldier had approached him. Unarmed. So gorgeous. So vulnerable . . .
   Dakota froze, and I watched the whole thing unfold. Honestly, I’d never seen anything like it in all my years in the muck. Nothing even close. And I’ve sent millions to die. Maybe the gamer was right to be afraid. What if Dakota was some kind of self-destruct bomb? I’d only met her that morning while getting suited up. For all I knew, she might be the next generation of NPC soldier.
   God_of_Destruktion wasn’t taking any chances. He wanted to live just as bad as Dakota.
   The guy pulled a fusion grenade and slapped it to a sticky pad—another nice move. I could see what was coming. That guy knew war—then he threw the thing neatly at Dakota in a long arc. There was a SPLAT!
   She turned to look back at us, the blinking device stuck squarely to her forehead; one great toss, if you ask me.
   The gamer dove behind cover. What could the rest of us do? We all dove too. Reno, York, Mi, Jevo, all of us.
   Dakota erupted in a shower of red mist and electrical backlash. When the battle resumed, there wasn’t a piece of her left that was larger than a raindrop.

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