YOU: For the nostalgia of the burgeoning game industry only

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YOU by Austin Grossman speculative fiction book reviewsYOU by Austin Grossman

Russell was a nerd in high school, running with a crowd of computer geeks before anyone knew what computers could do. Unlike his childhood friends, he didn’t stay a computer geek. He went on to try to have a ‘normal’ life. His friends went on to release a hugely popular video game, and founded a game label in its own right. Years later and after many changes in plans Russell comes back and applies to work for the people he left behind. Austin Grossman’s YOU is the story of a guy who isn’t quite anything but finds a place where maybe he can create something.

Characters are a huge part of any story for me. I can forgive most trope-filled plots if I can really dig into the characters. I had no such luck with YOU. I wanted to like Russell, and all the characters, for that matter. Charismatic nerd Darren, trapped-in-her-own-head Lisa, and our downtrodden protagonist Russell; these were people I could have identified with, people I grew up with in high school computer rooms and nerd clubs.

I had a distinct feeling throughout the novel that Russell, our narrator, was being guarded with the reader. It felt like he was holding back what he really thought and felt about the people around him to let the reader draw their own conclusions. For me, this was totally backwards. I found it very difficult to connect with anyone because I felt like I knew nothing about them. This even applies to the people he likes, one of his coworkers for example: Matt is given no other traits than that he knows the lore of the video games they create extremely well. Lisa is just kind of snarky and ‘complicated’ without giving us much of that complicatedness to dig into. Darren is just kind of a jerk. I wanted to identify with them as kindred-spirits, but in the end I only kind of liked them for the sake of what looked like an interesting story.

YOU is structured around Russell’s replaying of all of Black Arts’ games in order to track down an elusive bug in the games’ software. The dust jacket also promises that Russell must find out what happened in the death of one of his old friends. It’s also about who a story is for in video games, if anyone. We’re told too that YOU is, for Russell, finding his place in the world. In the end, YOU realizes few of these potential main plots. The ones it does follow through to fruition have little tension and fall very flat, leaving me with a distinct sense that I absolutely must have missed some huge key element somewhere early on (when in fact I didn’t). YOU felt muddled in all of its potential plots and therefor ultimately didn’t fulfill any of them in a satisfying way.

YOU is a very unfocussed book. Some of the plots and promised resolutions had me waiting for the ‘click’ moment. That is, the moment when all the seemingly unrelated pieces of a story ‘click’ together after crucial moment to uncover the ongoing mystery. I’m not hugely picky as to when things come together, but I was looking for that satisfying resolution of what seemed to be fairly unrelated plots. This ‘click’ or ‘a-ha’ moment never arrived for me, and at the end of the story I was left almost just as foggy as when we began.

Unfortunately I felt that YOU didn’t make any of the problems in Russell’s life a particular priority but rather was a dictation of the life of a mediocre main character. Mediocrity itself wouldn’t have fazed me much, and truthfully could be an interesting take on the male protagonist: what if he isn’t perfect and spectacular at everything or anything he tries? What would that story look like? But instead of being an interesting or heartfelt take, I found both Russell and YOU to be rather disjointed and ultimately unsatisfying.

Another aspect of YOU that didn’t quite work for me were the meetings between Russell and the main playable characters (of which there are four) from the Black Arts game world. Was it a dose of magical realism? Evidence of a confused subconscious? Were they representations of the creative process for Russell? These questions for me seem to be grasping at straws, as there are few answers present in the book. In all of these cases I felt that when he has conversations with the fictional characters from the game world I was left very confused and wondering what those conversations were achieving at all.

YOU does have one set of redeeming qualities: it is chock full of nostalgia. The nostalgic sense of YOU is sourced from a time before I was born, but I couldn’t help but be swept up in the feeling of anticipation and wonder when Russell is recounting his time with some of the first mass-marketed computer and gaming systems. I thoroughly enjoyed his sense of the future as he sat in the past painstakingly writing code to have his @ sign attack unsuspecting ampersands. Overall, the bouts of nostalgia in his flashbacks are rich and poignant with tasteful hints of where computer and gaming technology will go in the subsequent twenty to thirty years.

YOU is the account of a guy who by all accounts is fairly mediocre. Which would be fine, if any of the high-stakes, high-tension parts actually held any weight. As it was, they were almost always told as past-tense, which robbed any immediacy and made them feel recalled from a distance. The most vivid part was of a summer camp from his youth. Perhaps that’s the brilliance of it, the only real-feeling time in his life was that summer, but I don’t think that’s what Grossman was trying to achieve. In the end I read all of YOU in part for its reflection of technological days gone by, and a resolution that frustratingly never materialized for me.

If you have a love of video gaming and game development back-in-the-day, this might be a charming read for you. If you crave a mystery with the satisfaction of all the pieces coming together, you’d probably be better to look elsewhere.

P.S. Highlight here to read a spoiler:  The two ‘mysteries’ I’m referring to specifically are Simon’s death, and the bug in the game. First, Simon’s mysterious death never seems to be a high priority for Russell as the description suggests. In fact, the only time we hear about it at all is from Russell’s point of view when he recalls all he already knows about it. Nowhere does he seek further answers or clarification, but merely reveals the information he already has and no more.

Second, the ‘mystery’ of the game glitch is solved fairly early on, at the KidBits computer camp. When Simon wins the tournament and they all wonder how, it is revealed that a relic of the earlier games – Mournblade – exists in all of the games if you know to look for it. For me, this information completely undermines any tension there might be with regards to the main plot because at minimum Lisa and Russell were there the first time the bug was exploited, so they must already know what it is their entire adult life. That as well as the given that they have been using the same engine – WAFFLE – that Simon designed for every game since makes it extremely clear what’s going on from that flashback onward in the book.

These large plot flaws, coupled with a lackluster cast, made YOU quite underwhelming for me. [Spoiler Concluded]

Published in 2014. When Russell joins Black Arts games, brainchild of two visionary designers who were once his closest friends, he reunites with an eccentric crew of nerds hacking the frontiers of both technology and entertainment. In part, he’s finally given up chasing the conventional path that has always seemed just out of reach. But mostly, he needs to know what happened to Simon, his strangest and most gifted friend, who died under mysterious circumstances soon after Black Arts’ breakout hit. As the company’s revolutionary next-gen game is threatened by a software glitch, Russell finds himself in a race to save his job, Black Arts’ legacy, and the people he has grown to care about. The deeper Russell digs, the more dangerous the glitch appears–and soon, Russell comes to realize there’s much more is at stake than just one software company’s bottom line.

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SKYE WALKER, on FanLit’s staff since September 2014 (but hanging around since 2007), is from Canada, where she is currently a University student studying Anthropology and Communications. When she isn’t reading or doing school work (or reading for school work) she can be found in one of three places: in a tent in the woods, amid a sea of craft supplies on a floor somewhere, or completing the task of finishing her ‘Must Watch’ movie list. Skye was practically born with a love of fantasy and science fiction (as her name might suggest). These days her favourite authors include Ursula Le Guin, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Chris Wooding. Skye is in fact a Jedi (we know you were waiting for it).

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4 comments

  1. It looks like he wrote YOU before he wrote CROOKED (It’s always hard to tell when all you have is he pub date. CROOKED might have been languishing on his hard drive for years for all I know.) It might be that this was still something of an “apprentice’s novel”, and he was working out ways to develop and reveal character.

    He is also a game designer, so your sense that he was writing, to some extent, from a place of nostalgia is pretty astute.

  2. Thanks for going so in-depth and really examining the book, Skye! I’m a lifelong gamer, so this books appeals to me, but…I also NEED good resolution to plot points and mysteries, so I may skip this.

  3. Sounds like an attempt to cash in on Ready Player One’s popularity.

    • Regarding Marion’s earlier point, it’s possible that YOU was written long before Ready Player One was published in 2011. There was definitely a market, when these books were being published, for an “insider’s view” of video game creation.

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