I’m a sci-fi geek. I can admit that. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved the idea of aliens and other worlds, futuristic technology and time travel. I believe it’s because they tend to explore the human condition while having the liberty to traverse strange new worlds and are provided the freedom to turn everything upside down on a whim without being branded impossible. That’s because science fiction is inherently unrealistic — until it isn’t. The best sci-fi writers have a tendency to predict the future, the best of which have already innovated new technology before its time. Others have seen the future, or created technology and got it wrong, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t any less worthwhile. It’s a way to study the what-if of human nature, to explore the tendencies of mankind and provide a unique opinion on what might happen if we continue down the road we all travel at any given point in time. And for me, it’s one of the greatest roads a man can travel to free his imagination.
But to make the unrealistic work, a writer needs to inhabit his world with well-developed, believable characters that can draw the reader in. Being able to relate to the main protagonist is essential for those who can’t wrap their minds around the crazy or instantly invest in the ideas the author is exploring. In his debut novel, Gemini Gambit, D. Scott Johnson doesn’t try to be the prognosticators of prognosticators, but he does dive headfirst into foreign waters when it comes to high-tech advancements and virtual reality. So it’s good that he’s been able to present a set of characters that are fun to be around, otherwise, some of his grand ideas could have been lost on even a devout sci-fi geek like me.
Kimberly Trayne isn’t your ordinary lonely gamer. Yes, she may live alone, has extreme panic attacks when touched and works a mundane job when she’s not gunning down adversaries and leading her team of mercenaries through the virtual war game of her choice. But Kim is also a ghost — a high-value renegade hacker on almost every law enforcement list who has vanished from normal life for years after stealing millions from some unsavory people, not to mention destroying the economies of the world at large. She’s been careful not to make any mistakes that might reveal her true identity in the real world — here known as realspace — or the virtual one — known as realmspace. But we all know what happens. When someone finds a way to contact her for help, he inadvertently puts Kim on the run from both the FBI and a nefarious gang lord named Adelmo Quispe. Now she must find a way to end the threat and take down Adelmo before she’s arrested for the sins of her past.
Helping her along the way are Mike, a construct of realmspace who finds a way to enter realspace by taking over the body of a brain-dead body; Spencer, the young hacker who idolizes Kim (or at least who she once was) and helped Mike upload his consciousness to Colque, a man with a connection to Kim; and Tanya, the only person Kim knows from realmspace that she has allowed herself to meet in realspace. Each character is written with a concise voice that separates each from the other, and they all work very well together, both as characters and as a team. The sparring they do, whether verbal or physical, is fun and entertaining, and fits well into the world Johnson has created. Even the FBI agent on her trail, Aaron Levine, has a unique voice that keeps him from blending into all of the secondary characters.
It’s the separation of realms that seemed to get in the way of my pure enjoyment of Gemini Gambit. I love the ideas presented, that the world lives off of virtual reality in a way that has become embedded in everyday life — and in some instances, has almost become real life. One moment a character could be interacting in realspace and the next they’re in realmspace living the life they dream. But the transitions between the two more often than not are confusing, causing my reading of the book to go much slower. Not knowing when a character has entered realmspace or were still in realspace broke me out of the story several times as I tried to figure out exactly where we were — at least at first. Eventually I was able to simply let go and accept that the division between the two worlds was blurred on purpose, and allowed for a much more enjoyable read, but the frustration regarding the whole thing did linger.
Overall, though, I really enjoyed the story that Johnson put together. The action scenes are written well and keeps the longer than average book going at a pretty steady pace. I also liked how the chapters were divided into the points of view of each character, pushing the story forward while exploring each characters psyche at any given moment. I probably would have liked to have seen more chapters that explore the same scene from two different perspectives (like the final confrontation with Aaron that is fascinating because of the discrepancies between what’s happening in realspace and what happens in realmspace), but that’s a matter of personal taste more than a strike against the story. After all, it’s the way in which the characters are written that will keep you invested in what’s going to happen until the very last page.
My grade: A-
Gemini Gambit is the debut novel of D. Scott Johnson, a software developer in Northern Virginia. He lives with his wife, daughter and whatever pets he can smuggle into his home at any one time. When he’s not writing, working or spending time with his family, he’s mucking around in the world of hi-fi audio.
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