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I read this novel in the mid- or late-90s; I think it may have been published in the 80s, but I can't be sure, I only know it was in paperback by the time I found it in a local used-books store.

The story is set on a generational ship; I believe origin and destination of the trip was left unmentioned through the whole thing, but in any case they were irrelevant to the story, which was set at least a generation or two after launch (life aboard the ship was all anyone knew, and was routine), and ended well before even any excitement about nearing their destination. There were references to other generational ships, which may have been traveling with the one where our story takes place, but I don't recall any mention of any back-and-forth between the ships at all.

The ship was large, of course, and home to a very good-sized population of humans. There were social strata based on economic means (I mention this because often generational ships are portrayed as the epitome of communistic living, and this was not one of those), with much of the story taking place among the middle class and on the fringes of the upper class, although the main character also interacted with the lowest dregs of the social ladder.

What I most clearly remember from this story is the favored pastime of those living on the ship was an almost chess-like game played on a three-dimensional virtual "board", facilitated by the neural implants every person aboard the ship had imbedded in their brains (and, in fact, the only way to play or even to watch was to connect said implant to the game computer). These devices had their own independent storage and processing power, but all the top game players also rented time on the ship's massively powerful mainframes, to which they networked to help them plan their moves (the best players were those with rich sponsors and/or their own wealth, as more money could buy you more time and therefore improve your game). The game was turn-based, but also real-time, in that once a ship was given a heading and speed it continued moving in real-time while the other player considered and made their move; each player had a limited amount of time to make their move, of course. Ships would fire upon each other when they got into range. The premise of the game featured a generational ship much like what they were on as the game's analogue to chess's king; the other ships were various support ships (although I don't recall if there was any mention one way or the other of the "real" ship having any support ships), and the goal of the game was to destroy your opponent's generational ship (although just like chess, most often the game would end with one player conceding a losing position).

Other aspects I recall are that the main character was doing some kind of investigation, although I don't recall if he was doing so in any official capacity (i.e. he might have been a cop or a detective, or he might just have been a curious citizen). I have no idea anymore what he was investigating. The neural implants everyone had always recorded everything you saw or heard, and in addition to being able to be accessed for your own reference just by thinking, these could be accessed over the network by anyone with the appropriate warrants. As a result, the main character spent a lot of time in sections of the ship that for one reason or another could not be reached by the ship's network, because he was talking to people who didn't want the ship's authorities to know what they were up to; there was also lots of turning the implant on and off, something that people weren't supposed to be able to do in the first place but that, naturally, hackers had figured out how to do (in at least one scene the main character notes how lonely and/or empty he feels when his implant is turned off), which I believe was accomplished by some sort of device being held to the implant to temporarily suppress it.

Additionally, the names of characters in this story were very "normal" to me at the time, being a teenage American who at the time had barely ever left my home state, let alone my country; they were not alien in any respect. There were a few "oddball" names, I believe, however these were the aliases and handles of outlaws and hackers trying to hide their "real" names and/or build up "street cred" (why tell everyone your name is Robert Anderson III when you can be Bloodspiller instead?).

For whatever it may be worth, the cover of the edition I read featured a guy standing in what looks like a utility corridor, holding and firing downward what looks to be a laser pistol; he was wearing a uniform or some sort of armor that was primarily various shades of blue I think.

I believe the book was standalone (i.e. not part of any series), but if it was part of a series it was most likely the first book.

Something else I've just remembered is more detail about the device that suppressed implants. It was a small black box that was held to some spot on the head (temple? chin? throat?), which simple action suppressed not only the implant's ability to communicate with the ship's network, but also its "always-on" recording as well as even the ability of the user to access any of its information -- it was completely off while this thing was held to the head. Any sort of face-to-face interaction in which these devices (which were illegal, I think) were used (usually criminal endeavors, but sometimes snitches who just wanted to keep their identity off the record would use them too) involved a simple ritual to prove to each other that the device was functioning properly:

  1. Each person brought their own.
  2. The person would hold their device to their own implant, which both tested its functioning and proved to the other that it wasn't going to kill them with a poison needle or somesuch
  3. The two people would then trade devices, and for the rest of the interaction they used the other person's device, which proved that they weren't just using a dummy black box that didn't actually turn anything off

That said, I seem to recall that our hero at one point used some sort of clever ruse to fool someone into thinking that his implant was off when in fact it was not, but (if this even happened at all) it was so clever I can't remember what it was.

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    +1 not only because it sounds like a cool story, but one of the best "what am I thinking of" descriptions EVAH. – JohnP Apr 22 '14 at 20:04
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    Hmmm...possibly Player of Games, Iain Banks? ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/… en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Player_of_Games – JohnP Apr 22 '14 at 20:10
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    @JohnP Thanks. :) Not the story I'm thinking of here, but that one does sound interesting. The names of the characters seemed very "normal", from the perspective a teenage American who'd barely even left his home state at the time, let alone his country. There were a couple of "oddball" names, though, but these were primarily the aliases and handles of outlaws and hackers who were trying to hide their true names or just improve their "street cred". – Kromey Apr 22 '14 at 20:16
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    Figured it was a longshot because it's not on a generational ship. Did find this link of various novels featuring generation ships: sciencefictionruminations.wordpress.com/… – JohnP Apr 22 '14 at 20:17
  • Awesome find, I'll go through that list and see if any of them seem to match up with what I remember. Also, I've edited in the bit about the "normal" names into my question -- figure every little bit helps with these kinds of questions, yes? – Kromey Apr 22 '14 at 20:19
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Found it!

The novel is Checkmate by Eric T. Baker, published in 1997. Aaron Hudson, the main character, is a cop in the Contraband Unit aboard the Jersey, one of a fleet of generational colony ships between which shuttles at least somewhat routinely ferry people and goods (the latter not always legally, hence Hudson and the rest of his unit).

The implants are commonly called "mechanics", and while anyone can freely turn theirs on or off at will -- a state that anyone whose mechanics are on can readily read -- the devices I mentioned were used to ensure the "off" state as well as readily prove it to someone whose mechanics are also off.

FWIW, I disagree with the Amazon reviewer in that while the rulebook wasn't related to us in its entirety, we got enough of the game to have at least a basic understanding of what was going on in the games being described to us.

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'Ring' by Stepeh Baxter have some similarities:

  • published in mid 90s
  • contains generation ships
  • as well as some virtual board game which was variation of "Snakes and Ladders"

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