Suboptimized: A Review
Competitive online gaming, a tech school, and one life-creating simulation project to confuse them all...
What happens when put a game in front of anyone? They'll try to figure it out at first. Some games just aren't meant for some players, while others are right up their alley. Some old-school games don't even explain what kind of game you're playing. You kind of just have to figure it out on the way.
The question posed by Suboptimized is if life itself is some kind of game, some kind of simulation meant to truly "optimize" life and evolution. In the guise of a school project, the protagonist (Jay) is given the beginnings of a universe to solve. He, however, has no concern for the project, as he's part of an online gaming team that is gunning for first prize at a national competition. It's a lot of money and would mean a lot to win. Frustrated about the assignment, he gives it to his sister to figure out.
This simulation is one of those games that does not tell you what's going on, and so the puzzle aspect is what gives the sister (Athena) the drive to continue playing the simulation. The problem is that, as the simulation continues, lifeforms appear. Not only do they appear, but they're quickly evolving. Anyone working on the simulation kind of appears as gods to the new life forms, and as the simulated life forms evolve, so do the mounting questions about the project. Who wanted this project completed? What will they be using it for? Why made this in the first place? What isn't being said?
Now that the premise has your attention, we need to talk about the execution. The pacing is fast and a lot happens early on. This, to me, was not the greatest choice. I still do not know what anyone looks like (except for one character whose in-game avatar is described), and I do not know what anything looks like. Most everything happens in exposition and dialogue without grounding us sufficiently. While I imagine the online game to be something like Halo or Overwatch, the only reason I was able to picture any of it is because I am a gamer myself and have exposure to those games. For a player of casual games, or someone who does not like video games at all, it would be confusing. This is further confusing because this world seems to be in the future, and I don't know the limits to the technology of this reality. Tedious as it may be, I wish the book had slowed down enough to give us concrete description rather than blow through plot points.
There is also an issue of confused voice and tone. The attempts at humor are fun, but because that is not the tone of the novel it comes off as intrusive. Additionally, there are some pop-culture references that I'm not sure make sense within the context of this world, mostly because I don't have enough world-building to make that connection. It reads as an attempt at a Ready Player One type tone and styling without there being a definitive reason for it. The inconsistency may not pull all readers out of the experience of the novel, but it bothered me enough to mention it.
If it weren't for the fact that I wanted to know where the author was going with the overall messaging of the book, I think that the characters alone would have given me a reason to put this book down. While I know names, I could not tell you much about any of their personalities. Every character was flat, and established relationships didn't feel established. No one had expressions or emotions beyond frustrated, angry, and curious. I did not feel the joy of a victory, and I did not feel a relationship between brother and sister. I didn't even feel friendship or camaraderie between teammates. This even goes insofar as the digital world and all the lifeforms we are supposed to care for. I had no investment whether they lived or died, or what they were experiencing. I felt the cold detachment of a scientist looking in on an experiment rather than the emotional care of a god-like figure that the characters are set up to be. If you're looking for a great cast of characters, this is not the book for you.
What this book offers is a question and an exploration of this question. I did not feel strongly about much in the book, but it did pique my interest several times in quick enough intervals to keep me reading onward. I believe that the novel as a story still needs work, but it functions and is intriguing in and of itself. There were several twist moments that were well-executed, and I was never confused as to plot points. If you're looking for a fast scifi palette cleanser, this might be for you.
Star Rating: 3 Stars
Recommend: Yes, with caveats