Lately I’ve been downloading a large number of free ebooks from BookBub, or Kobo, or anywhere I can: my book budget has been exhausted. I have discovered, though not surprisingly, that my quality of reading has thus dropped significantly, and a large proportion of the free books I delete after reading the first couple of pages. Every once in a while, thankfully, one like Tony Bertauski’s The Discovery of Socket Greeny comes along to rejuvenate my joy of reading on the Kobo. The book was first released in 2010, so it was not a “straight-to-almost-free” book like so many, but at first my response was “What on earth are they doing offering this for free?” followed by “I wonder how much the sequels are going to cost me?” For there are always sequels in children’s and YA fiction these days, it seems: but I have lamented this situation before. There are, in fact, sequels to The Discovery of Socket Greeny, although all three books were released in 2010: The Discovery of Socket Greeny in July, The Training of Socket Greeny in September, and The Legend of Socket Greeny in December. Despite the sequels, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the first book was, in fact, sufficiently self-contained to satisfy my narrative needs completely. There were directions that Bertauski could take his story, more that could be told, but it is not necessary to read more to find closure.
The conception and plot of Socket Greeny are original and engaging. Picture a YA version of Neuromancer with shades of Little Brother, Ender’s Game, and Feed. How could I not read on? Perhaps, too, I liked the immediate immersion into the virtual world of MMOGs (massively multi-player online games). The story opens with three teens hooked into virtualmode to study, but instead hacking into someone else’s virtual world to battle. Bertauski’s description of the transitional process is both a little familiar (see Neuromancer) and yet unique.
The banter between Socket, Streeter, and Socket’s girlfriend, Chute, about the wisdom of their enterprise reveals the closeness that exists in this triad of friends:
“What are we doing here?” I asked
“We’re going to get our kill on.”
“I just got pardoned for fighting. We get caught, just stamp my suspension.” …
I looked at Chute. “Did you know we were doing this?”
“He didn’t tell me. If you were in class on time, he wouldn’t have told you, either.” …
I have listened to the teens upstairs: Bertauski’s characters are real.
Hacked into the Rime world, something goes terribly, unexpectedly wrong. Their sims are almost destroyed: a shadow forms that only Socker can see (“You’re brain damaged. Shadow sims can’t stabilize in this environment”); he begins to feel his sim; and time stands still. Cut to the three of them in detention for misuse of virtualmode time, when Socker is pulled away by his mother for a “family emergency.” His friends don’t see him again for 8 months.
The discovery of Socker Greeny—who and what Socker is—underlies the remainder of the novel. But it is not the mystery that grabs the reader so much as our affection for the character: his combination of youthful bravado and insecurity, his compassion, his need for love, his anger, and even his outright fear. His internal monologue sits comfortably beside his descriptions of all that he sees and experiences in the new reality he finds himself in.
Ultimately Socker does discover who he is, essentially, as well as learning the truth about his broken family, and his mother’s disinterest and even coldness towards him. Starved of affection for so long, it is no wonder that he clings to his friends just that little bit, emotionally. His need is mirrored in his unswerving commitment to the friendship, though, and in the end it is the combination of their talents that helps them to fight for their lives almost successfully… Not that everyone dies, of course, but it honestly is not obvious that they will all survive. Bertauski does give us the satisfactory happy ending (of course, we knew that Socket lives on, or there wouldn’t be sequels), but the danger feels real, and the escape from it uncontrived, if expectedly fortuitous. The world has changed irrevocably for Socker and his friends: they will never again be the team that they have always been, but they—and we—are okay with that.