Sector Eight by Michael Atamanov
Sector Eight is a fantastic example of the emerging genre called LitRPG, where everything takes place partly or entirely within a virtual reality, massive multiplayer video game.
Publisher’s Description: A strange body that refuses to obey you; a weird game you can’t quit until your contract expires; a world teeming with powerful and very real enemies. The game in which your reputation and faction relationship are the only things that matter.
These are the conditions of the agreement Ruslan signs without reading. The only thing he remembers is that he’s been contracted to command a space fleet in a brand new game he knows nothing about. Objective: to survive for six months. After having made some inevitable newb mistakes, Ruslan has to rethink his strategy, dropping traditional gaming conventions. But what will it cost him? What new trials and tribulations await him that even the game designers have failed to anticipate?
Possible spoilers beyond this point.
Sector Eight, by Michael Atamanov, falls into the genre of LitRPG—the same genre as my previously reviewed book, A Virtual Dream by Brent Roth. LitRPG is a growing genre that takes place partly or entirely within a virtual reality, massive multiplayer video game. I will be doing a series of reviews from this young genre as the summer progresses, and have decided to come out of the gate swinging with this second entry. For a genre so new that its rules are still being written, author Michael Atamanov breaks them without ruining the experience. Arguably, side-stepping the expected enhances it here.
Breaking away from Fantasy, which is the most common setting for this genre, our main character exists in our current or near-future world. For a character like this to share their story with us from inside a video game is a step too far for some people to stay engaged. Those of us who do, however, follow the gaming cultural references with a hunger. In LitRPG, the characters spend time leveling up, learning skills, increasing their various attributes and completing quests; interacting with NPCs (Non-Player Characters), other players, and player-killers alike. In Sector Eight, while main character, Ruslan, does indeed interact with players and NPCs, there is no leveling. There are no referenced attributes or statistics, and the concept of quests is vague.
What it does do, which unexpectedly brings about a fresh experience, is utilize a Faction system that displays how others in the game view a character, and leaves everything else up to the player’s imagination and knowledge of gaming. It is, in a sense, very political. Players are able to raise or lower their view of others, affecting reputations on both a personal and galactic level. This plays a very large role in how events unfurl as the story progresses, and how NPCs react and relate to Ruslan.
The Good: I expected the break from tradition due to reading a few reviews prior to my purchase and so I knew that while Sector Eight is firmly rooted in LitRPG as a genre, it wouldn’t be sating my craving for “leveling up” the way some of the entries in my upcoming reviews do. Having embraced this, I dove in and was taken on a fantastic ride, and left wondering if the universe of Perimeter Defense – the name of the game Ruslan hops into his virtual reality capsule to play – is really a game at all? Ruslan starts out the novel leading a battle over voice-chat for a large number of players in a game that is obviously heavily inspired by Eve Online before being presented with the opportunity to jump into Perimeter Defense. It was a fun tie-in of familiarity for modern gamers, to lead into something we’re only just beginning to explore with the new Oculus Rift and Gear VR virtual reality systems hitting the market in 2016.
The characters introduced in Book 1 have the potential to be strong as they’re fleshed out through the next entry (yes, there is a Perimeter Defense #2) – both individuals that Ruslan is pretty sure are other players, and NPCs he encounters. He’s never quite sure though, as talking about life outside of Perimeter Defense is grounds for an immediate ban. The dialog is acceptable, and the translation from the author’s native Russian is well done overall (a note on this in the next section). This is worth noting, as Russia is a leading force in the LitRPG world and not all of the entries in the genre are well translated.
The Bad: While the translation from Russian to English is well done, I may not be as bothered by oddities in language as some. I feel it important to point out that while every word is accurately translated, they don’t necessarily always make sense culturally. I’ve noticed from other Russian translated LitRPG novels that beginning sentences with “Well” or “So,” is very common, but not in the same way Americans use them – rather it seems they start the sentences that way simply to have something with which to initiate the statement. This type of cultural difference (and there are a few more) can be jarring at first, but I’ve consumed enough Russian translations at this point that I take it in stride, well aware that the main character is Russian but speaking English for our benefit. If it nags at you, try giving the characters Russian accents in your mind.
The Conclusion: I wholeheartedly recommend this book. It may also serve well as a gateway from other speculative fiction and science fiction (particularly for fans of the Space Opera style, focusing more on action and drama than accurate scientific representation) into the LitRPG field. Atamanov has created in Ruslan (and his in-game alter ego) a character I want to know more about – and thankfully, there is a second entry in the series I will be reviewing later! The story was a good deal of fun and if Perimeter Defense, the game, is ever published here, sign me up.
If you like this book…
I also recommend checking out this Goodreads List of 116 LitRPG Novels.