I gave a lousy review to Spielberg’s film version of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One at the time of its release*. I’ve recently listened to the audiobook version, narrated by the excellent Wil Wheaton. Yeah, excellent though he is as a voice actor (thumbs up to his narration of John Scalzi’s Lock In), he can’t overcome the problematic material.

One of the problems is the underlying trope’s hyper-masculinity. I know that that’s a buzzword these days, but protagonist Wade’s teenage trans/homophobia is hard to get away from. Especially when the character points out more than once that you don’t know what a person in The Oasis, the story’s virtual world, looks like in real life, with some variation on ‘she could be a 200 pound dude living in his mom’s basement.’

Wade (who goes by the name Parzival in the Oasis, a name which might be significant) is a nerd, but the Comic Store Guy from the Simpsons is Wade’s unnamed analogy for what any possible friendship outside the Oasis looks like and it’s the one thing that seems to truly disgust him. It’s Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura shtick about possibly kissing a trans woman, and it makes most of the story kind of painful to follow. (Eric Molinsky discussed this in some detail in a recent episode of Imaginary Worlds.)

The object of Wade’s affection, Art3mis, falls under the trope of manic pixie dream girl. She’s a little older than Wade, smart, funny, prolific, and out of all of his leagues.

The opponent is Nolan Sorrento, the head of IOI, a classic Evil Corporation ™, but we know from the start that Wade wins. The problem with this is that its history is written by the winners. Wade can justify whatever he did to help his friends and to take out his opponents because his was the righteous cause.

He also has all the cool and all the cultural knowledge that it takes to win. I think the 80s cultural milieus that make for the story’s back drop are its main attraction. Movies and books and video games people of a certain generation (mine) grew up with, even though Ready Player One is set in the future and its heroes are all of a later generation. (The developers of the Oasis, however, are children of the 80s.)

The cultural references don’t make for much of a story, though. They’re a wrapper for something resembling a quest. Hence the sort of significance of Wade’s Oasis handle. As a hero, he’s as flawed as any you’re likely to come across. He’s destined to win because he’s the eternal champion in his youth and his heart is in the right place (name a revolutionary whose heart isn’t, in that one’s own telling, though), and everyone else is inferior in some way, or missing the key white male privilege that he’s got. Cline could have stepped up his game and Spielberg could have done the same, but it’s the same pasty white hero who has to save the day. (Louder for the folks in the back: Not the woman, not either of the Japanese characters, not the one I’m not gonna detail because, spoilers. The white kid.)

In contrast with the other listening and reading I’ve been doing lately, it also fails key tests of relevance. One could say that Cline was writing precisely what he knew and couldn’t do any differently, but the fact is, he could have represented his hero as more heroic, there’s no reason to repeat the fat 30 year old in his mother’s basement line multiple times. One friend of mine pointed out that it’s okay for the protagonist to be unlikeable, but I think the problem here is that he’s unlikeable because his creator didn’t think the character needed to be any different. And perhaps the character is so close to the creator’s heart, that those flaws don’t seem like flaws. I’m not sure.

The real world vs. the virtual still winds up being about schoolyard taunts. The guy living in his mom’s basement is one of two or three that set my teeth on edge. The less said about them, the better.

There’s so much better SF/F out there that doesn’t give the game away from the opening. Because the competition in Ready Player One is based on video games and is (on one level) a quest, the fact that it relies on the quest token trope might be forgivable. Quest tokens are a way fantasy writers have historically gotten their characters from the starting line to the finish. You know the story line: The prophecy states that only the person with the characteristics of our hero who brings these hidden items to the meeting point will prevent ultimate doom. Think of Harry Potter collecting up the various deathly hallows. But it’s a motif that’s played out. Back when Michael Moorcock was getting paid by the word, it was fine. Again, I forgive RP1 this because the video games and tabletop role playing games that are the backdrop for the quest in this story all depend on these.

Looking at the story from the Arthurian quest motif may have some merit. As I said, I don’t want to give Cline too much credit in this department, but the book turns on a sequence in which Wade sacrifices himself in such a way that he might be out of circulation for a very long time, or very dead. While he planned carefully for the move that put him in IOI’s control, knowing that they killed his aunt and uncle and very probably one of his friends, the risk he takes is huge. In the world of Grail quest legends, there’s a pattern of the hero setting off in a rudderless boat in order to leave all in G-d’s hands. A quest can fail because the hero does something to take control of the situation. One could identify Wade setting himself up to be captured by IOI in this way. Was he leaving it all to fate? Not really, but the chances against the plan working were high.

Quest token

From that point forward, I was far more invested in what happened even though I didn’t feel there was any real growth on Wade’s part. It’s not as though everything is handed to him – he grows up in lousy surroundings, raised by people who don’t care for him, and finds his refuge in the Oasis. Where he thrives. The problematic aspect is that he sets his mind to things and generally succeeds. And keeps winning. When he’s behind, he finds a way to win. I never felt invested in his struggle, because there is no struggle. There’s no point at which he’s in true despair (except when Art3mis rejects him).

This combination of jumbled pop culture from a previous generation and detailed social structures that are both two steps ahead of now and two steps from the Middle Ages makes for a compelling setting. And the goal of preserving what’s good and moving it into something better is worthy. Another part of the Arthurian quest motif is bringing back a boon to society. As a knight in pixelated armor, Wade doesn’t start the game with any altruistic motive. He wants to get off planet Earth entirely if he can. It’s not amusing to me that this self-centered, immature use of great wealth is what currently drives Bezos, Musk, and Branson. Three overgrown, too-privileged white boys. As result of Art3mis goading him to think differently, he determines to make good use of the fortune winning will bring him.

On a certain level, the story has merit, but my saying this is like realizing there are songs by the Killers I actually like. I’ve actually looked for a translation of von Eschenbach’s Parzival, which I haven’t read in 30 years. (Interestingly, the freebie found on archive.org is Jessie Weston’s translation. Her volume From Ritual to Romance was one of the key influences on TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ which brings us around to Arthurian legend again.) The fact remains that Ready Player One is pure popcorn and the references to things that aren’t 80s pop culture are as paper thin as those that are. And the relationships are flimsy excuses for how actual humans interact.

Does it fail on its own merit (or lack thereof) or only in comparison with other books I’m reading these days? There’s so much good SF and fantasy coming out these days, that it’s a shame that stuff like this does so well. I had similar things to say when everyone was reading Dan Brown novels. There’s better popcorn and there’s stuff that actually makes you think. I say that it not only fails to live up to what it could have been, I feel somewhat had for the time I’ve spent on it. I wish Cline weren’t so enamored of his own cleverness. The possibility that there’s an emotional depth to his characters, grief and joy that are separate from simply leveling up or failing to, seems lost on the author.


* And I watched it again last weekend, and find it only slightly less troubling than I did a couple of years ago. It’s still fluffy. Spielberg still gave up the opportunity to make it better, but it’s different enough from the novel, that I was amused by it. And the whole Shining section is still mindblowing.

I’ve been reading fantasy and science fiction for over 40 years. Piers Anthony and Robert Heinlein were mainstays through my adolescence as were Stephen Donaldson and Stephen King. In the last couple of years I’ve focused a lot more on writers who aren’t white men. I know that my experience is by no means exhaustive, but fantasy in the last few years seems to have made a real leap in terms of the presentation of sexuality and gender roles.

The dynamics between characters with regards to sexuality, gender, and gender roles have taken a giant leap forward. Consider Star Trek, which was itself a leap forward with a Black woman, an alien (played by the son of East European Jewish immigrants), a Russian, and a Scot holding lead roles alongside the only slightly evolved Wild West White Male hero. In the late 60s there was almost no hint of non-binary sexualities. Gene Roddenberry had advanced a little beyond the rigid gender roles espoused by Robert Heinlein. Consider Stranger in a Strange Land. The titular character a human raised on Mars, whose parents were two of the four crew members of a mission who managed to kill one another out of jealousy (if I recall rightly). He returns to Earth as a messiah of sorts, but all the surrounding characters (including Heinlein’s perennial stand-in Jubal Harshaw) are very much about the heterosexual/dominant male dynamic, more evolved though Heinlein might have preferred them to be.

Fast forward to the early 90s, we get Storm Constantine’s Wraeththu trilogy, which imagines a world with a very queer milieu of traditional humans and this next level hermaphroditic race who become who they are through a kind of vampiric infection. Constantine was writing this at the height of the AIDS epidemic and imagining infections that made one more powerful, better able to heal, and impervious to (rather than suffering an accelerated) mortality. In addition, it’s humans, not the very queer Wraeththu who are on the way out. There’s definitely a revolution in her approach to fantasy, but it’s also a reaction to the time.

Fast forward to now. I have no idea if the writers I’m enjoying today are at all representative, but consider these. In the first book in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, two of our humans fall in love with distinctly different aliens. Captain Pei (an Aeluon – a sort of reptilian biped) and Captain Ashby have a relatively hetero relationship, but at the heart is the fact that extra-species relationships are explicitly taboo for Aeluons. She has to keep her relationship with Ashby secret through the whole series. Chambers has derived these characters from deep considerations of how different species might evolve. When Rosemary and Sissix connect, we’ve already learned that the adult Aandrisks (Sissix’s species) raise families of offspring that they haven’t themselves given birth to. The whole clan structure is discussed before their ship lands on Sissix’s home planet. The fact that she connects with a human, however, is a matter of course and not addressed as strange.

The characters in Neon Yang’s Tensorate Series are born without gender and decide sometime after adolescence which path to take. Our heroes in the first books are twins and one decides for female, the other male. And the male takes up with one who made no transition.

In Charlie Jane Anders’ Victories Greater Than Death, the human characters introduce themselves with their pronouns. Is this heavy-handed? I’m not sure. They’ve got something like a babelfish. When our hero introduces herself to a Chinese character with her pronouns and a whole bunch of hard-to-digest information, she asks if everything made sense. The other says, ‘I’m Wang Yiwei. Your Mandarin is hardcore except the part where you try to use gendered pronouns.’ Anders acknowledges that in a very diverse galaxy, some species might feel differently still.‘Then acting Senior Engineer Yma is a Zyzyian (small, slimy, blows bubbles all the time). It’s a huge insult to use any kind of pronoun to refer to Zyzyians – like, a battle-to-the-death-level insult.’

Also, in addition to the crew of the main ship being aliens from all over, the humans who join are from all over. Tina and Rachael are Americans, Damini is from Mumbai, another is from Brazil.

Nghi Vo introduces a character on page 1 of The Empress of Salt and Fortune ,as ‘they’ as does Nino Cipri in the LitenVerse books (Finna and Defekt, which take place in a very weird version of Ikea).

I think my favourite of this new kind of fantasy is Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series. (And it’s really easy to mix up Wayward Children and Wayfarers, I know). The conceit of Wayward Children is that the main characters all end up at a school for kids who have been through doors into what we would call fantasy worlds. McGuire takes the idea of how the kids in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe would actually have interacted with their parents upon return from Narnia, and how very hard they would have been to deal with and what if we could shunt them off to someone who could actually handle all the blather they talk about Narnia and talking lions and fauns and evil witches. So we go to Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children. All of our kids have been somewhere else and returned. And long to go back to the Goblin Market (where every trade is based on agreed upon fair value) or the Moors (ruled by a vampire and a mad scientist always in competition) or Confection which is sugar and sweet and nonsense. Kade is trans, Jack and Jill are twin girls (and require a look into their histories to recall what made Jack different. But all of their differences are cherished and the fantasy aspects of their adventures are as normal as the differences in sex and gender.

When Yskander says to Mahit in Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire that she ‘should do something about’ her feelings for Three Seagrass, it’s solely an acknowledgement that love should be attended to. Yskander had had both male and female lovers and acknowledged love as the key to things. (This brings to mind the end of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element in which love is quite literally the key. Beautiful but annoyingly heterocentric, much like Besson’s more recent Valerian.)

I’d love to know what Constantine would think of these modern evocations of love in all its normality. Sadly she passed away earlier this year, having labored in some obscurity for the last couple of decades. I’m finding in my reread of Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit (the first of the Wraeththu books) a sort of normalization of queer love, but it’s very much in opposition to that of humanity (credit in the straight world, as Courtney Love once put it). Non-Wraeththu society still exists in opposition to queerness. Where we are now is (despite the anti-gay battles still being fought) offers a modicum harmony. Even in Constantine’s queer Utopia, one character says that if he hadn’t been elevated to Wraeththu, he’d just be a queer. This might be a reflection of the character’s own self-hatred (which manifests in a number of ways) or it might be that even at the end of humanity, love and desire still evoke senses of shame.

Ongoing radio drama podcast The Strange Case of the Starship Iris deals in much the same realm of sex, gender, and race being aspects of life and makes the embrace of same central to the plot. Populated mostly by humans, and one Dwarnian, the titular starship is a mixed bag of characters. Dwarnians and humanity fought a disastrous war, but the Dwarnian on Iris is engaged to Brian Jeeter who’s trans, and the other humans, male and female are from all over, as are the actors. Liu, Patel, Captain Tripathi. The cast, based on the actors’ names are equally from all over.

My experience of fantasy writing nowadays is very much informed by the fact that I’m focusing on writing by women and trans authors. I have little or no idea how representative these writers are, but Chambers and Martine are nominees (winners?) for major SF awards. It’s not as though these are niche writers at this point.

Last week I mentioned Maddow and O’Donnell, Penfriend’s Attention Engineer, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and BBC Radio 4’s Friday Night Comedy. This week I look at more music, some food, and more politics.

Martyn Ware’s Electronically Yours. Ware was a founding member of the Human League and Heaven 17, and his British Electrical Foundation project relaunched Tina Turner’s career in the early 80s. He mostly interviews his own contemporaries (Thomas Dolby, Gary Numan, Vince Jackson), but he’s gone farther afield with Sandie Shaw, and Tony Visconti. Sometimes he’s a little too fond of his own self, or he hasn’t yet decided to edit out his own meanderings, but in general the interviews are fascinating. In his interview with Tony Visconti, Ware admitted early on that Visconti had produced 12 of his 20 all time favourite albums, but he generally did a good job of letting Visconti tell the stories.

Home Cooking with Samin Nosrat (author of Salt Fat Acid Heat) and Hrishikesh Hirway. I learned of this great podcast from Hirway, I’m guessing – I think he must have mentioned at the end of an episode of one of his other podcasts, Song Exploder (which I also love). I didn’t know anything about Nosrat and her amazing cooking journey. The two of them started this podcast at the beginning of the pandemic with the idea that they’d do four episodes talking about their favourite foods and answering listener questions. Four has so far turned into 15. Really delightful and sweet. And mouthwatering.

I said I’d mention a political podcast, but in the last couple of weeks, I’ve not listened to much beyond Rachel and Lawrence. But in the category of longer form political discussion, I really like Stay Tuned with Preet Bharara. Bharara was US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, fired at the beginning of the last administration. He is both articulate (not unexpected in a trial attorney) and an astute interviewer. His discussion with conservative columnist David Frum at the earlier this year was especially interesting.

My relationship to Judaism has always been weird. When my parents were still together (they split when I was 4), we must have observed many of the rituals in the home, even though Fullerton, CA was a long way from the New York and DC locales of the rest of our family and heritage. Why do I say we must have? My Bobe (my mother’s mother – second generation American) relished telling a story of some early visit we made to see her and Zade (my mother’s father, first generation – arrived from Ukraine in 1912 or so, I think). It must have been when I first visited them in DC as a walking, talking person (as opposed to a toddler). The way she told it, I walked around the table, and looked at the candlesticks and wine glasses and large pictures of a pair of ancestors from the shtetl, and asked in all innocence, ‘Are you guys Jewish?’ My grandparents found this hilarious.

Nowadays. Between then and now, I’ve gone through periods of greater and lesser connection. At the moment, I’m starting to learn a little about Yiddish culture and taking a Yiddish class online. It’s a period of greater connection, let’s say. Last week, I was listening to The Shmooze, a podcast from the Yiddish Book Center. The interview subject was Judy Batalion, a playwright and author from Montreal who recounted the sources of her latest book, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos. She grew up knowing about Hannah Senesh, as I did – this one incredibly brave Hungarian Jewish woman living in Mandatory Palestine who parachuted into Nazi-occupied Hungary, was captured, tortured, and killed by firing squad in 1944. Batalion was researching other such women and found an entire book published in Yiddish in the US in 1948 or so, which told of other such brave women. And that book sank into obscurity, and Szenes (to use the original spelling) became the synecdoche in Hebrew school history for all those incredible women. This book one book sent Batalion on her own path, resulting in a 500-plus page book on the subject.

In that Shmooze interview, Batalion makes the point that those women did what they did out of a certain necessity, and for the simple reason that they risked less than the men by doing it. Men who were caught would have their trousers dropped, because only Jewish men were circumcised then. The women and girls had often gone to school with the non-Jewish girls, so their Polish was that spoken in the general populous, not the Polish of the yeshivabuchers who went to schools within the shtetl an mostly spoke Yiddish and Hebrew.

And this got me thinking about how we think about heroes, about Israel and its very male leadership. And, oddly, I read today about a female-created female superhero, Miss Fury, who had a 10-year run that ended in 1951. Not the same as actual heroes of the anti-Nazi resistance, but categorically similar, in that Fury’s creator, June Tarpé Mills, is another woman whose work was subsumed by the mid-20th century’s habit of glorifying the masculine and shutting away all the women who dared.

I think there’s a group psychology that comes into play in groups that need to be rescued. And I fear diving into what the survivors of the Holocaust had to deal with who then moved into a world where they could actively defend a new homeland but knew that they hadn’t been able to defend their previous homes. I’m an armchair psychologist at best. But hiding the stories of those girls and women who ran explosives between the ghettos and went out on other missions against the Nazi occupation serves to make a monolith of all the victims of the Holocaust. If all were victims, then the ghetto uprisings, and subsequent liquidations, were anomalies, rather than the rule. (Sometimes you hear someone say, ‘If I’d been in Germany, I would have fought back. Why didn’t the Jews fight back?’ The answer is, We did.)

There are a lot of people who study these matters of language and culture and history who know these things better than I do. But there’s one connection to draw about the decline of Yiddish and the loss of these stories. When Jews were settling in Palestine before World War I there were discussions of what the language of this new country (still a dream, but עם טירצו and all that) should be. Hebrew won out over Yiddish and there are a few what ifs regarding what that society would be like if things had gone the other way. I fear that the psychology of powerful men taking power would still fight for society to forget women who fought back.

Many podcasts ask you to rate and review in the various podcast places, but I thought I’d use this post to point to some of the stuff I listen to when I’m out on walks and the like. If I put it here, trust that I recommend it highly.

Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell are my go-to folks for left-wing outrage. Capable journalists and engaging hosts. The podcasts are just the audio versions of their TV shows, but that’s fine. I used to listen to both of these just about every weekday, but I’ve dialed it back to two or three times per week, because times are hard and my outrage needs more effective channels. Back when times weren’t so bloody fraught, Maddow would make cocktails on air every now and then, and punctuate some shows with a segment called ‘Best New Thing In The World’ which was always nice. And then we got DJT and it’s not like that anymore. (about 45 minutes each)

Friday Night Comedy from BBC Radio 4 Alternate series of The Now Show, The News Quiz, Dead Ringers and random BBC audio comedy. The Now Show is topical political humor with sketches, music, and pointed commentary. Skewers both left and right. The News Quiz is a scripted panel game show. Kinda like Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, but shorter with a UK focus, natch. Dead Ringers is comedic takes on a number of British radio shows and a lot of the humor assumes you recognize the source material. I’d listened for several years before I actually knew who Diane Abbott was. (30 minutes)

Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me is NPR’s weekly news quiz – I’ve been listening to it for most of the 20+ years it’s been on the air. Obviously a US bent on these things. (45 minutes)

Attention Engineer – Musician Laura Kidd (formerly She Makes War, now Penfriend) interviews mostly other musicians about the creative process and being creative in these times. The first episodes were recorded in late 2019 and didn’t predict how crazy stuff would get. Check out one of her gorgeous new tracks, Black Car (The list of her podcast guests is on the right).
(Usually over an hour)

And if I have my act together, I’ll do another one of these next week.