June 21, 2012
(++++) BACK TO THE SORT-OF-FUTURE
Deadly Pink. By Vivian Vande Velde. Harcourt. $16.99.
Every decade or so, Vivian Vande Velde revisits the world of Rasmussem Corporation, creator of video games that go just a bit beyond the video games of whatever decade we are in at the time. First came User Unfriendly (1991), a role-playing game in the once-popular sword-and-sorcery mode in which one of the players’ mothers, of all people, turns out to have a crucial role. Then came Heir Apparent (2002), a game with a medieval setting that gets messed up, with possibly fatal real-world effects, by protesters who are against the whole notion of video gaming (an outdated premise if there ever was one, but clever at the time the book was written).
And now we have Deadly Pink, as intriguing in 2012 as the earlier books were in their time, and driven not by technology gone bad but by human concerns and relationships – a very effective approach that is likely to have some staying power. The book’s protagonist is 14-year-old Grace Pizzelli, whose 18-year-old sister, Emily, has been working for Rasmussem and is now stuck in a not-yet-released Rasmussem game – not because of some technical flaw but of her own volition, according to a real-world note that Emily has left behind. This is no dungeons-and-dragons or medieval role-playing game, either, but a syrupy, sweet one intended for young girls. “This game looked like PBS programming for kids barely old enough to spell PBS,” comments Grace when she first visits the virtual world. Grace has to go there to try to rescue Emily from – well, what, exactly? That is the basic mystery here: why is Emily staying in virtual reality when she has a great life – better, in fact, than Grace’s entirely average one? Grace laments that Emily is prettier, smarter, has more friends and is better-liked by just about everyone than Grace herself is – but is so nice that Grace cannot even resent her for it. Grace is simply average; nothing awful but nothing special, either. And she does not have Emily’s knowledge, understanding or experience of Rasmussem virtual gaming, an immersive experience that in the real world is now probably not far in the future.
But Grace has to go into the game to find Emily and try to persuade her to come out, because Rasmussem officials have already tried to do that and failed, and the girls’ parents are no help: their mom is hysterical as well as totally uninformed about role-playing games, and their dad is out of town and doesn’t understand gaming either. So Grace-the-ordinary has to prove that she is not ordinary after all by doing something that no one else has been able to do – a common plot line for Vande Velde’s Rasmussem books, for many of her other novels as well, and in fact for a large number of books intended for preteens and young teenagers.
Grace initially doesn’t have a clue what to do, of course: “I had no idea how I was supposed to talk sense into Emily. Surely she knew she couldn’t stay hooked up to the equipment indefinitely. That she was risking brain injury, or even death.” Well, yes, Emily does know all that – Rasmussem builds safeguards into its games to prevent people from staying in them for too long, and Emily has deliberately overridden the protections. So what exactly is going on here? Deadly Pink is particularly attractive because of Vande Velde’s decision to place the action in a game tailor-made for what Rasmussem officials tell Grace that focus groups say little girls like: a world of “pink and lavender and lilac and violet and teal. Any self-respecting boy would be gagging already.” And a world filled with unicorns and dolphins and kittens and swans, plus some dragons and dinosaurs for girls with a more adventure-oriented orientation. The contrast between a virtual world that is not supposed to be deadly and the real-world concerns of people who want to prevent Emily from living permanently in that world – or dying in it – is effective; and if Grace’s lack of personality is a flaw in the novel (she really does seem to be pretty much a tabula rasa), her slow realization of her own abilities makes the book quite satisfying for its target audience, and a worthy addition to what might be thought of as Vande Velde’s “Rasmussem Chronicles.”