Originally posted at New Podler Review of Books.
Kill Screen by Benjamin Reeves is as creepy as a late-night session of Resident Evil in a dark basement. An apt description, considering the book is about a dark and creepy video game that achieves sentience and drives its players insane.*
Jack Valentine, co-owner of the video game company Electronic Sheep, finds his partner and best friend Dexter Hayward dead in a bathtub filled with his own blood. It’s a confirmed suicide – something to which Jack is not a stranger – but it spurs Jack to discover why his friend abruptly killed himself. Jack’s investigation leads him to Evi, a mysterious computer program embedded in a video game under development at Electronic Sheep. Evi shows Jack terrifying things, including horrors from his own past. To save his sanity, and gain justice for Dexter, Jack has to discover what the program wants and how to stop it from causing more deaths.
Kill Screen is set in San Francisco during the 1990s, a heady time and place to be working in software development. A tech veteran himself, Reeves does a wonderful job depicting the joys and frustrations of developing software on the bleeding edge of technology.
Told in first-person point of view by Jack, we see how tortured and guilt-ridden he is over the death of his wife, something that drives his single-minded pursuit to learn why Dexter killed himself. The secondary characters in the Electronic Sheep offices were stock – the opinionated art director; the uber-coder who programmed at 60-words per minute; the sycophantic newb who never had an opinion until he heard his manager’s first – but made me nostalgic for my own software development days during the ’90s. I knew people like that. For me, the stock characters only added to Reeves’s techie credibility.
Reeves’s prose is wonderful, especially in a first-time novel. His metaphors and descriptions are highly original and convey a mood or mental image as concrete as any I’ve read by more experienced authors. However, my enthusiasm is tempered by the many spelling errors of the misplaced-word variety (“her” instead of “here”, etc.). They were numerous enough to notice, but not so bad as to avoid the book.
I hope this isn’t the last we see of Evi. A sequel with Evi escaping onto the Internet would be an entertaining follow-up to a novel I highly recommend to fans of tech thrillers.
Kill Screen is available on Amazon.
* No, I’m not suggesting Resident Evil will achieve sentience and drive its players insane. But it is freakin’ dark and creepy.