Piers Anthony

Walter Toland has the heart and soul of a hero – but his physical body is confined to a wheelchair. He lost both his legs and his job in the line of duty as a policeman. Baal Curran is a high school senior, full of the promise and heartbreak of her first love, and her first loss. The needle scarring from her diabetes drove away the only boy ever to care for her. Now she has retreated inside herself, determined never to be hurt again. Both of them have discovered Killobyte, an exciting new fantasy adventure game that promises to be the most realistic experience they can imagine. Once again Walter can have the strong legs of a hero, charging through a castle to rescue a captive princess, battling a ferocious dragon, matching wits with a sorcerer. With her face hidden behind a fictional character, Baal can forget her shyness and her fear that others will shrink away from her because of her lifetime of illness. She can laugh and have adventures, and dare to care about someone else again. But Killobyte is more real than even its creators can have dreamed. Within its programming lurks a flaw that has allowed one demented player a kind of power its creators never intended – a power that can trap and “kill” Walter and Baal time after time in the game scenarios. Of course, as long as this game of cat and mouse is kept within the world of computer-generated adventures, it’s only a frustration. Walter and Baal seem never to win. But as the games continue, they begin to wonder whether the power of this mystery player can extend outside the framework of the game…. The mystery player is out for power – and the power he has in mind is far more than just racking up points against fictional opponents. He’s coming after Walter and Baal in the real world, and his threat is death.

Killobyte book cover

This is, if not the first work of Anthony’s I actually read, the first I enjoyed so much that I recognised his name as a tour de force. Of course, I reread it for these few reflections, but I almost didn’t need to: it’s a book I devoured time after time after time. It’s on par with every big book, series or author that shaped my reading life, and there are many of those.

I have a very strong memory of listening to this book on a Road Runner or Book Courier, both of these are very niche reading machines for blind people. The Runner was developed in the late 90s and it’s quite feasible that I read the book, more than once, on both devices. It’s a matter of record that in march 2009 I added it to my Courier again, but as I no longer use the Courier now I can’t be more specific. Even after adding it in 2009, I could have returned to it time after time. This wasn’t the case with the Runner, which to give you some perspective only had 3 MB of memory which was flashed whenever you added new content.
Anyway, I’ve probably read it on both those machines, and almost every computer I’ve had or used since. I don’t recall the first time I read it in any detail, it’s not like the Philosopher’s Stone where there’s a great event going on, and of course in the mid-to-late 90s I wasn’t cataloguing my reading.

There’s a huge amount about the book that I absolutely love. The opening sentence “Draw, tenderfoot, or I’ll plug you where you stand!” Is indelibly burned into my memory, and the way in which the Killobyte game is revealed during the novice chapter really starts the book off well.

Then, there are more esoteric things about the book which appealed, and it’s only looking back at it now that I see why.

Baal impressed me at the outset, because she’d taken the time to read the game’s manual rather than diving in, an approach my younger self would have fully supported. But Baal also pulled at me, because of her disability. It’s interesting that Walter’s story unfolds first, and we learn how he becomes disabled before we read about Baal’s onset. And yet to me, Baal’s story impacted more: in fact, had you asked me before this reread (remember, it’s been a goodly time since I last read the book) I would’ve said we’d found out about Baal’s condition first. we do, of course, in her introductory chapter, but it’s not until later that we get the story of her discovering the Diabetes. In my mind, that story totally eclipsed Walter’s injuries.

y, then? I think the bit that really pulled at me was Baal’s summer camp reference. The complete dichotomy she experiences between her “friends” and the people at camp, her apathetic interest in going and her enjoyment when being, the frenetic pace of life at camp and the adaptations they make there to cater for the issues that arise due to the necessities of Diabetes and the nature of the relationships formed there all spoke, tremendously, to me somehow.

I don’t think any of this was conscious at the time. I probably hadn’t even considered this until now, but during this reread, things just clicked into place and I came to see Baal’s situation as, if not an analogue of my own, at least a variant of it in some way.

The other psychological thing of interest to me was Phreak, especially his aunt. The sentences “All he needed from his aunt and uncle were food, a place to sleep, and ignorance. They gave him that.” almost exactly mirrored my own feelings when I moved away from home. It’s worrying, because although I don’t see any of my actions in phreaks at all, I do see the potential, a path I could, I’m sure, have taken were circumstances different.

The lure of the book for me at a younger age was, of course, the technology. The game of Killobyte proved mesmerizing, and finding the things that wouldn’t work with the technology of the era (such as NLP and the bandwidth constraints for such high-brow physical action and immediate high-quality vocal transmission) were as thrilling as suspending disbelief and just enjoying the thrill. The way in which the story unfolded kept my interest, even when young, and I find it astounding, looking back, that the whole psychological analysis angle completely flew over my head but yet must’ve impacted, somehow, for the book to hold such sway over me.

As to the writing, I do remember that I hadn’t come across the word twain before I saw it here. Nothing else leapt out at me as being worthy of my lexicographical attention, but that also must’ve helped me soak up the work as a youth – it was so easy to read, so accessible to my vocabulary at that age. Reading it was effortless, enjoying it was practically guaranteed.

Trying to think objectively, there’s nothing overwhelmingly innovative about the storytelling. The VR concept was early for its age, the people, just painted well but essentially ordinary. But there’s some magic there, because had I been able to read a paperback of this book it would doubtless be falling apart by now, if it hadn’t long-since disintegrated. This hasn’t really been a review, has it? Wikipedia calls this book a character study, and I must say the story played less to me this time than did the people in it. The author’s note went in my mind from being a reflection on the story, at the beginning of my relationship with the work, to a powerful message about the creative process, the research involved for such an undertaking and the people and stories Anthony draws from to make the book work so well.

I’m sure I’ll read it again and again and, doubtless in another iteration I’ll uncover even more. the books been published for twenty-one years now, so perhaps in another two decades I’ll find it warn and old and tired. But I doubt it. This is one of those titles that holds a seed of my youth, part of the key that unlocks my tastes so precisely, an ingredient into that unique mix that is my own makeup. It can never lose that lustre and I think I owe the book more than I can articulate.

Published by Sean Randall

I am an avid reader, technologist and disability advocate living in the middle of England with my wife, daughter and pets.

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