Saturday, January 26, 2013


Micro Adventure #3: Million Dollar Gamble

Why is BRUTE snooping around your local grocery store?  Where did the winning lottery ticket come from?  Who is Robin?  And what does it all have to do with the European micronation of Solonia?

The really great thing about this book is that it throws you off-balance almost immediately.  The first two books (and indeed most of the series) begin in a formulaic fashion -- Orion receives a coded message that briefly describes the mission, an ACT transportation specialist -- codename Hot Wheels -- arrives to pick him up, and after a brief chase, he arrives in some secret location for a full mission briefing.  Everything's all sorted out by the end of the second chapter, and everyone's ready to go.

This time, things are a bit stickier.  Orion has been called in to pull some reconnaissance at his local grocery store, but when the lottery ticket he received in the mail turns out to be the winner of the $25,000 jackpot, he nearly finds himself kidnapped by the BRUTE agents he was sent to keep an eye on.  Escapes, chases, and spying ensue, and it isn't until about halfway through the book that everyone starts to piece things together and the official mission begins.  The best thing about having conventions is seeing them subverted, and it was fun to have Hot Wheels around for more than just the opening chase sequence.

I don't remember much about this story from when I read it as a kid.  Possibly it's because it was a library book and I only got to read it through once, but I'm guessing it's also to do with the lack of fantasy elements.  Compared to adventures in space or deep in the jungles, this is a pretty down-to-earth computer hacker story with a hint or two of War Games to it.  But as an adult, I love it!  The little hints of the plot that fall into place one by one really kept me wondering what would happen next, and especially what Orion's BBS pen-pal Robin had to do with all of it.

But the better story made some of the goofier bits stand out.  The micronation of Solonia is depicted in broad strokes of European stereotypes.  All the men wear lederhosen, everyone gets around by horse-drawn carriage, the power grid is constantly failing, their economy is starving for tourism, the entire country only owns one computer... Oh Europe!  You're so poor and weird!  Also, at one point the story goes to a zoo, and they really play up how ferocious and nasty the wolves are.  I dunno; I've been to a zoo or two, and I've never seen the wolves do much more than sort of wander around and maybe lie down in the shade.  It just made me wonder what the hell the zookeepers were doing to them to get them so pissed off.

There were some strong characters, but the one I remember best was The Chameleon.  He's an ACT agent who specializes in disguise and acting -- when he takes on a role, he gives in completely to his new persona, both physically and mentally.  As a kid, I had no trouble taking this at face value, but looking back, it sort of stretches believability.  The way it's described in the books, The Chameleon's ability to get into character seems to border on metamorphosis.  But I think the rule of cool applies here, and a guy who can turn into someone else at the drop of a hat is a cool ability; if I had to name my favorite ACT agents, he's top of the list.

The programs are fair enough this time around.  Considering the plot revolves around computer hacking, a lot of the programs are simple special effects, although you'll have to do a bit of debugging and password-hunting.  Encrypted messages are a plot point this time around, and in fact, at one point you'll be challenged to write your own decryption program.  You're given a template to base it off of, and instructions about how the thing is meant to work, but it's still a decent challenge; even with the instructions, it took me a couple tries to get it right.

All things considered, this is a solid entry in the series.  Just enough twists to keep you guessing all the way to the end.

Next time: Time Trap


Thanks for posting these reviews; it's been a nice trip down memory lane, and gave me a page to link to when I wrote this extension.
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