I would love to live in Robert J. Peterson’s imagination for a day. His novel, The Odds, is an imaginative post-apocalyptic chess game to the death blended with The Hunger Games in a universe filled with mutants, monsters, and cell phones more deadly than any bomb. In other words, entirely awesome. My second venture into a Peterson world, Omegaball, is no less imaginative, out there, and highly entertaining but in a completely different way.
Omegaball is the story of identical twins Laurie and Helen Everett who not so secretly hate one another. Paralyzed at birth, Laurie is incredibly intelligent, inventive, and utterly isolated because of her disability and Helen’s bullying. Helen is pretty, popular, and green with envy for Laurie’s grades and all of the accommodations she receives because of her disability. That jealously gets worse when the girls make their way onto the Darknet, a virtual universe where anyone can be anything or anyone. In Laurie’s case, that someone is Susie Supernova, an able-bodied alias who becomes renowned on the Darknet as an omegaball player, a sport that takes the brutal smashing of football, the accuracy of basketball, and the utter carnage of giant robots beating the crap out of each other and wraps them together into a neat package. When Laurie is noticed and offered a spot on the team of real-life omegaball coach Glenn Booker, the girls’ story gets a whole lot more interesting.
Written as first-person accounts recorded by Laurie, Helen, and Glenn’s bolts, Peterson writes different chapters from each perspective and does a world-class job making both girls sympathetic and, at times, utterly deplorable with what they’ll do to hurt one another. The rest of Peterson’s cast is small, at times almost incestuously small in how our various characters interact and always seem to be at the right place at the right time, and yet by the end of the tale I found something to love and something to hate about every one of them from the Chicago Dreadnought’s Smasher Kojo Jelani to Laurie’s best friend and nerd extraordinaire Driscoll, to Helen’s charmingly stupid boyfriend Heck. Omegaball’s cast is beautiful, interesting, and so magnificently flawed.
Have I mentioned that all of this delicious drama takes place in the year 2176? Peterson’s world of the future is so believable I can draw parallels in 2016 to every piece of future tech. The world itself is a giant 3D printer with devices called nanorgs in the air that can craft basic items like pens, cups, and giant foam fingers out of the air in seconds. Virtual reality has progressed to a point that a small bolt in someone’s neck can transport them to an entire virtual universe. Cars drive themselves. Oh, yeah, and giant robot suits tear one another apart as the world’s new, totally awesome, sport. The beautiful thing is that Peterson weaves all of these facts so gracefully into the story that the setting doesn’t take the focus away from the characters and the drama at the heart of our tale.
And yet the biggest flaw in Omegaball is there are some aspects to the setting I wish were explained better, like the titular omegaball. I can’t tell you how to play omegaball. Couldn’t even say for certain how one wins an omegaball game. I really wish I could. Another important setting aspect to the story is the Darknet, the virtual reality world people access via bolts implanted in their neck. Peterson does a good job of establishing the rules of the Darknet, but it’s not as finely tuned as, say, Ready Player One’s OASIS. More problematic, the common ’80s and ’90s video game, TV show, and movie references in the Darknet don’t have a built in reason in Omegaball like they did in Ernest Kline’s novel.
And yet these blemishes hardly matter, because the main interweaving plot and characters are so good. The biggest compliment I can offer any book is when I can’t put it down. Peterson is a master of the page turner. Omegaball contains cliff hangers and mysteries aplenty to make readers say, “Just one more chapter,” into the wee hours of the morning.
4.5 Artfully Constructed Powerwalls Out of 5