Austin Grossman's YOU: brilliant novel plumbs the heroic and mystical depths of gaming and simulation

YOU is the second novel from Austin Grossman, whose 2008 debut Soon I Will be Invincible marked him out as a talent to watch. Now, with his second novel, he confirms his status as a major talent.

You is the story of Russell, who tries to leave behind his nerdy, computer-game-programming high-school life to get a law degree, but by the end of the 90s, he's dropped out and come to work at Black Arts, a game studio founded by three of his school buddies — the three who stayed true to their nerdy roots. Black Arts is famous for its brilliant simulation engine, which was written by Simon, Russell's old school buddy, who has just died under mysterious circumstances, leaving the company he founded in uncertain shape.

Russell's story weaves in the fascinating fictional canon of the Black Arts games, his history as a teenager encountering the first generation of PCs, and the white-hot fever of a game studio whose existence depends on shipping a game to beat all the other games ever made. As a piece of fiction about life in a high-tech company, You ranks with Microserfs for its portrayal of the romance and heroism of wresting life from endless lines of code, and with JPOD for its pitiless depiction of the alienation and loneliness of a life inside a machine.

But Grossman isn't just chronicling the rise and fall of a company, or of a character, or even an industry. Rather, he uses YOU as a tool to prise open the mystical center of what art is, what games are, what fun is, and how they all mix together. Some of YOU reads as pure poetry, others like a fascinating treatise on the unplumbed depths of the ludic urge, and taken as a whole, it is a novel that both uplifts and entertains, and reframes the world we live in and the things we do in it. It is easily one of the best books I've read this year.

Incidentally, Austin Grossman comes from quite an exceptional family. His identical twin brother is Lev Grossman (author of the fantastic novel The Magicians), while his sister, Bathsheba Grossman, is a justly renowned sculptor who produces 3D printed mathematical solids. I am pleased to say I have many works from all three siblings in my office.