Game Write is a recurring series dedicated to the fiction of game industry veterans. From the best-selling titles of Drew Karpyshyn and Austin Grossman, to the obscure classics of Jane Jensen and Sheldon Pacotti, this series hopes to unearth both the gems and the trash we tend to leave buried in the credits. In this entry, we look at Sheldon Pacotti’s short story collection, Experiments in Belief — featuring a variety of science fiction stories written throughout the ’90s on the complex interplay of science, ethics, religion, and politics.
Sheldon Pacotti is best known as the lead writer for the ground-breaking 2000 video game, Deus Ex. His self-published writing should feel familiar to any fans of Ion Storm’s game, similarly meshing science, politics, religion and philosophy in a style that veers between academic and thriller. Pacotti rarely wastes words, and he tries to convey heavy concepts through entertaining plots, rife with conspiracies, political turmoil and an uncomfortable number of accurate social-technology predictions.
Experiments in Belief is a collection of Pacotti’s ‘best’ short stories from the ‘90s, from his collegiate juvenilia to technological and philosophical frameworks for Deus Ex. Because of this, it’s a mixed-bag of a collection, and many stories — particularly the juvenilia — are short bursts of great ideas that never make it past the surface. (A good comparison would be Philip K. Dick, known for his surface ideas far more than his execution.)
The opening story, ‘End of a Long Winter,’ is one of these nuggets. A nice concept executed blandly: An old man shares his musings on how immortality has impacted society in the future; how he’s treated as elderly in a world without wrinkles. Then it ends. (This concept is further explored in Pacotti’s excellent novel, Demiurge.)
This opening of an idea, immediately followed by an ending, hurts a number of these tales, particularly those acknowledged as juvenilia in their prefaces (see: ‘No Secrets,’ ‘Royal Colors’ — an out-of-place attempt at YA fiction that feels bitter and even gross — , and ‘Match Heads’ — which is more Raymond Carver or Breece D’J Pancake sentimentality than anything, making it the most at-home-in-a-creative-writing-class story in the bunch).
‘Evil Spirits Travel in Straight Lines’ is beyond impressive, and was my favorite in the collection. It toes the line closest to hard science fiction, portraying emotionally-stunted academics researching a new strain of malaria in Africa. Their personal problems and general pettiness create translation issues as they intrude (à la Jared Diamond) and condescend local cultures to benefit themselves in the name of the Western world. It’s thoughtful in its portrayal of perspective: In its attempt to understand the individual in a world where Western technology or philosophy is so darned intrusive, whether it be the local population or the academics. This story is the thematic seed for much of Pacotti’s later writing, including Deus Ex, covering that complex interplay of science, religion and politics.
Highlights here tend to focus on the humanity amidst all the technology, and the irrational rationality with which people tend to justify their social problems as either correct or non-existent. ‘Conversations with the Noösphere’ relates the quiet geniality of Kurzweil’s singularity, which is both infuriating and comforting to the protagonist: Infuriating because his usefulness is being replaced by a predictive software he frequently disagrees with; comforting because that same software that makes him feel inadequate is so essential to his coming to terms with his wife’s death. ‘Vanishing Point’ is about curing homosexuality through medicine. Its overt delivery feels somewhat dated to the ‘90s now, but it still carries some poignancy in the light of unconscious, institutionalized discrimination being far more prevalent and far more celebrated than anyone will ever want to admit (hello, Mike Pence). ‘Incantation’ ends the collection with how expensive intelligence-enhancing drugs affect social dynamics between rich and poor. How can children with hard home lives compete in a school system that openly gives the edge to families that can afford these drugs? (How can they compete now?) It’s a difficult, but interesting story, sometimes hampered by the same sentimentality that affects ‘Match Sticks.’
I love that Pacotti, by his own admission, tries to learn by writing rather than writing what he already knows. Sometimes it falls flat (‘A Great Burning’), but it’s more often successful in exploring uncomfortable (to many) or unique perspectives (‘Azadi’, ‘Signs’). Like Dick, his stories are bristling with weighty ideas and perspectives — and unlike Dick, he often has the writing chops to match.
Since there are a number of duds in this collection, I highly recommend checking out story highlights available for free on the author’s website — or pick up one of his novels, Demiurge or γ (Gamma), which compete with the best of this collection at a grander scale. After an 18-year editing process, his second novel, γ (Gamma), was finally released in 2016, and easily earns a spot among the best sci-fi stories of the year.
6 / 10
While Sheldon Pacotti is best known for his work in video games, he’s also been quietly publishing fiction for over 25 years. His writing also includes Demiurge (2000 / revised 2014) and γ (Gamma) (2016). His video game credits include Deus Ex (2000), Deus Ex: Invisible War (2003), America’s Army: Rise of a Soldier (2005), Cell: emergence (2015), and the upcoming System Shock sequel.