Paintwork shimmer with the retinally-rendered pixels of a less dystopian cyberpunk.
And yes, I did say "tantalizing" -- to read "Paintwork" and "Paparazzi" and "Havana Augmented" is to all but ache to play the games,* see the sights, watch the action (especially, if one has predilections like mine, that of the robotic beetles who generate and maintain billboard QR codes by secreting weirdly indelible nano-pigments "in both colors", ink-jet style. I mean, who wouldn't want to watch that?), hang out with the graffiti writers, pro gamer stalkers and digital-culture heroes of Maughan's world.
"Paintwork" is a sci-fi/mystery genre mash of a tale of an Augmented Reality graffiti writer of rising reputation who is fending off a weird series of attacks on his work, attacks that don't obliterate it (just hours after it goes up) so much as riff on it in a viciously warped way. As an introduction to a world of Google glass-esque experiences of "consensual hallucination" that turn ordinary urban landscapes into overwhelming three-dimensional marketing sense-bombs, it's first rate. 3Cube isn't just a guy with a spray can in the night; he's a guy with a spray can and a QR code stencil that hijacks dumb marketing art and turns it into stunningly detailed pop art with lessons about his city's past and its potential. However one may feel about graffiti and street culture, a reader is likely to share his puzzlement and outrage when he discovers someone else is hijacking his hijacking.
In "Paparazzi" a post-post-postmodern filmmaker who specializes in turning hours and hours of recordings of immersive in-game experience into memorable and usually critical documentaries is seduced into trying his hand at celebrity stalking. A world-famous professional gamer is beta testing new content for the world's most popular MMORPG; John Smith's vision is to infiltrate the playtest sessions and catch in-game footage of the master at "work." Maughan has here not only imagined a highly plausible new artform for a new fully-immersive digital age, but has already imagined a way its finest practitioners can be produced to whore out their talent.
And in "Havana Augmented" two young residents of the world's last Communist regime find themselves at the forefront of Cuba's half-assed attempts at developing its economy beyond that of a tourist haven, via exploiting the pair's intricate and exciting hack of yet another popular game. Our heroes, pretty much cut off from global gaming culture by their country's policies and firewalls, have nonetheless managed to take a run-of-the-mill giant robot battling game and scale it up and make it mobile, the better turn it loose on the streets of the capital city. When word leaks out on how these guys and their friends are duking it out, mecha-style, in the actual virtual streets of Havana, corporate/gaming culture comes calling, and Cuba welcomes its promise of economic development -- though the government is ignorant of what these powers will do to Havana's virtual landscape and thus to its newly "spex" toting citizenry. Hard to indoctrinate people to hate the free markets of global capitalism when they're busy admiring the latest city-dominating Coca Cola ad via their augmented reality glasses. The resulting conflict finally and more effectively than I've ever seen realizes the idea that video games can be more than just video games. Take that, Last Starfighter.
Author Tim Maughan is also a quality follow on Twitter, funny, urbane and an entertaining speculator on where our technology is taking us. He is thus definitely someone to watch, if this debut book is any indicator. And I think it is.
Just the right mix of thought-provoking and fun. Fans of Jeff Noon and William Gibson take note!
*And this coming from someone who sucks at video games and who avoids MMORPGs like the time-stealing plague.