<Book review>

Epic by Conor Kostick (2004)

How long do you spend sitting at a keyboard every day? Be honest. And, is it time wasted, do you think? Of course, it depends what you are doing at the keyboard. If it's homework, fair enough, but what if it's just a game? Perhaps you think playing a computer game can develop valuable life skills? Perhaps it can.

It can in Erik's world. Erik lives in a colony on a planet a long way from earth. The first settlers brought with them a few materials and resources such as solar panels which are now past their best, the sum of human knowledge in the library, their own ingenuity -oh! and a computer game called Epic. They also brought a single rule: there is never any reason for violence. So they manage their conflicts by playing the game. In school the children each create their own character and learn to play the game. Any wealth that their character acquires contributes to their own status in real life. It makes the difference between, say, having your own farm and labouring in the salt pans. Anyone who does really well and creates a very successful character can look forward to a glorious career at Mikelgard University, where they study Epic, and a place on the powerful Central Allocations committee.

How do you fancy that as a way of life? Of course, it does mean that you spend practically all your free time stuck in front of the computer playing the game, trying to build up strengths and wealth for your character. But you also have to keep the family farm going, or work down the mines, or in the saltpans, or whatever. So you're pretty busy. And if you suddenly need, say, medical treatment, in real life, and you haven't earned enough money to pay for it in Epic, then you're in trouble.

Erik dreams of challenging the all powerful Central Allocations:

'Look at the state of our world. We are slowly but surely descending into a state of total impoverishment. Think of the waiting list for basic, simple operations, which would so greatly improve the quality of life for those who suffer. Think also of the shortage of solar panels, which sends men and women into the mines at the risk of their lives and at the cost of isolation from their communities for three months at a time. Many tasks, such as mining, that used to be performed by machine are now done at the cost of hard manual labour, and that is a situation which grows constantly worse.
'And what do we spend most of our time doing? Learning from the enormous libraries that our forebears brought to this world? Designing equipment that can take us forward again? Improving the land for greater yields? No. We spend all our spare time in Epic. Because Epic is our economy and our legal system. To survive individually, we need every copper bit we can obtain from the game, no matter that this will ruin us collectively. Does this make any sense?'

Ring any bells?

Watch Erik as he sets about creating a super character to challenge Central Allocations. He can't do it all by himself, of course. His friends help him, but ultimately, it's going to take everyone in the colony to work together to bring about the end of the game. And that, really, is the beginning, not the end...

What can I read next?

I love books that give us a glimpse into a possible future, even though it is usually a future that I wouldn't want. This one has a whiff of reality about it that really catches my imagination. If you like this kind of story too, have a look at this classic by Lois Lowry:

Or this one by Robert Westall:

Or this memorable view of a flooded planet earth by Julie Bertagna:

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