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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.

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was a prolific writer primarily known for her novels To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, and Orlando, and the feminist essay A Room of One’s Own. I was introduced to these novels in college and returned to them after certain cinematic excursions into the material. Dalloway and Woolf were central the novel and film The Hours. Sally Potter made a film of Orlando in the 1990s starring Tilda Swinton and featuring Quentin Crisp in the roll of Queen Elizabeth I.

Orlando (1928) is an outlier in that it’s in many ways a love letter to Woolf’s erstwhile lover, Vita Sackville-West. It’s comic, and light-hearted, which aren’t generally words associated with Woolf’s work. I picked it up again last night after a long time away from it. I try to find emotionally light reading for that half an hour at 2AM when I’m generally awake these days and don’t want anything too involving. Wodehouse often fits the bill, for example. However, I’d forgotten the opening paragraphs and was rather shocked by the sheer racism of those passages.

He…was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. It was the colour of an old football, and more or less the shape of one, save for the sunken cheeks and a strand or two of coarse, dry hair, like the hair on a cocoanut. Orlando’s father, or perhaps his grandfather, had struck it from the shoulders of a vast Pagan who had started up under the moon in the barbarian fields of Africa; and now it swung, gently, perpetually, in the breeze which never ceased blowing through the attic rooms of the gigantic house of the lord who had slain him.

Of course I have no idea why this passage never previously struck me, but it’s the nature of these times to question our assumptions, or lack thereof. The terms Moor, pagan, and barbarian to describe a single person, dead long before the action of the book begins, but obviously a source of the titular character’s emotional (and probably financial) inheritance. Woolf follows this statement with fairly glowing terms about the Orlando’s beauty, poetry, and outlook. But I return to those opening sentences and wonder at that casual approach Woolf takes.

1928 or no, it surprises me, and raises again the question of how one interacts with historical texts – do I say this person whose insights into the human condition are some of the most incisive in literature is no longer someone I’ll read, for the political reasons that we use to take other artists out of our personal spheres of influence?

It’s a casual racism in which shorthand is used to make up for characterization. Similar to the Jews in J.B. Priestley’s The Good Companions, and possibly all of the non-Europeans in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”.

In The Trouble with “Heart of Darkness”, David Denby offers this opinion submitted by Edward Said: ‘Most imaginative writers of the nineteenth century…failed to connect their work, their own spiritual practice, to the squalid operations of colonialism. Such writers as Austen, Carlyle, Thackeray, Dickens, Tennyson, and Flaubert were heroes of culture who either harbored racist views of the subject people then dominated by the English and the French or merely acquiesced in the material advantages of empire. They took empire for granted as a space in which their characters might roam and prosper; they colluded in evil. Here and there, one could see in their work shameless traces of the subordinated world…’

Woolf, though writing 30 years after “Heart of Darkness”, seems to fall squarely within the canon Denby and Said are citing. Her hero is an heir to the fortunes of Elizabethan colonialism just as much as the characters in Austen and Dickens.

Denby’s essay is a counterpoint of sorts to Achebe’s An Image of Africa: Racism in Heart of Darkness. ‘Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality..’

I’m pretty sure a reread of “Heart of Darkness” is in order right now. One of the thrusts of Achebe’s argument against Conrad is that he reduces the natives of the Congo to caricatures with neither language nor art. The excuses made for Conrad include an argument that this wasn’t the story he was writing. Denby addresses this – that arguments against HoD are often that he should show the same modern sensibilities towards the non-European elements of his story as he does to the European. This isn’t Conrad’s job, but the shorthand he uses to compare the savage internal world of Europeans with a non-existent savage external world of Africa is similar to the shorthand with which Woolf opens Orlando. And there is most definitely a conscious or unconscious racial/racist aspect to this shorthand.

Denby suggests that Achebe, as a novelist and not an academic, doesn’t bring the necessary rigor to this discussion. And it’s easy to write off some of what he says as unsupported assertions about Conrad’s racism in general (actually well sourced by Achebe) and the racism in “Heart of Darkness” in particular. I think I’ll run with my initial take on the matter which is that the racist tropes that both Conrad and Woolf employ are in service to easy analogies. The stories of the Africans, pagans, or Moors aren’t the stories either are telling. On the other hand, Conrad’s ‘dog in breeches’ comparison (cited by Achebe) is simply sloppy writing – Woolf using the terms Moor, pagan, and barbarian interchangeably to describe the same severed head is also sloppy writing.

Neither Conrad nor Woolf (who, in Orlando’s introduction, thanks no fewer than 20 fairly illustrious literary contemporaries for their feedback) are careless writers. But I think both writers are relying on a European readership to recognize the tropes and to play along with how these tropes define and refine the portrayals of their main characters.

In this way it’s easy to contrast light with dark using these tropes, in the same way that Kurtz’ fall has to do with his adoption of the local nature and culture and his submersion in the native, dark part of the world, and his collusion in the enslavement and killing of the natives. The Grove of Death sequence cited by Achebe is essential to the story of Kurtz’ fall because it shows how the colonials used the natives to death in their trade. Orlando, like Woolf and Sackville-West herself, is a product of these activities – the wealth of the west is based on this kind of exploitation top to bottom and so is the exploitation pointed out in that opening paragraph.

I don’t know what to make of the fact that Woolf’s father was a prolific writer on ethics, science, and humanism and that her paternal grandfather and great-grandfather were prominent abolitionists.

Given how much input Woolf accepted regarding the history covered in Orlando, and how much she left in place, it’s hard to deny that the views expressed in the novel are her own, or those shared with Sackville-West, or those of the first readers. How else to explain the shorthand?

Later, the character Orlando compares the exploits of his ancestors (who killed individuals of different nationalities) with those of one particular poet. The poet, not the murderous ancestors, is immortal, and Orlando, too, ‘[perceives], however, that the battles which Sir Miles and the rest had waged against armed knights to win a kingdom, were not half so arduous as this which he now undertook to win immortality against the English language.’

Is Woolf saying that as Orlando grows, he grows from the limited mortality of his murderous ancestors into the immortal poet? It’s possible, but doesn’t reduce the shock of those opening lines. As the book progresses and Orlando (who remains about 30 years old from 1600 through to 1928) evolves away from that racism of that opening paragraph and the reader might be forgiven for thinking the attitude expressed there is that of the author and not the character himself. An argument might be made that because Orlando’s sex changes from male to female (in chapter 3), that this attitude belongs to the barbarity of maleness. And, in fact, the language of the story becomes more genteel for much of the story’s remainder.

As the book nears its conclusion, the narrator considers several of the lives Orlando has lived, ‘…a biography is consider complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand. Choosing then, only those selves we have found room for, Orlando may now have called on the boy who cut the n*****’s head down; the boy who strung it up again,’ and two dozen more that we’ve met in the course of the novel. Again there’s the shock of her racist language when we thought we were or she was done with it.

There’s probably an answer to the question of Woolf’s racism if one delves into the letters and the diaries, and reads far more than I have. Or we can accept that she’s the product of her time and her place and her class. Oddly, she wrote of Ulysses that it was ‘egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating…When one can have cooked flesh, why have the raw?’ One question of Orlando is, why when Woolf could have prepared the meal to perfection, did she garnish it so crudely?

In recent news, employees at the Hachette publishing group staged a walkout over the publication of Woody Allen’s memoir Apropos of Nothing. Last year, Hachette imprint Little, Brown published Catch and Kill, a work by Allen’s son Ronan Farrow (by actress Mia Farrow, Allen’s partner for 12 years) about the Harvey Weinstein scandal and how powerful mean escape accountability. Farrow has also been public about his support for his sister Dylan who claims that Allen molested her when she was 7. The internal Allen/Farrow family dynamic doesn’t interest me so much as the fact that someone at Hachette felt that the house could sidestep that dynamic. They could take the kudos for publishing Farrow’s work and also have financial dealings with Allen without taking an internal or external PR hit.

Yesterday, Hachette decided to back out of the Allen contract and pulped all copies of his book, appeasing that opposition to Allen. Farrow himself was surprised at the Allen deal because no one at Hachette had informed him it was happening.

I wish I could be surprised that a large business would engage in this kind of having cake/eating it too activity. Was it really possible that no one in the organization spoke up to say, No, the Allen deal is lousy, that it just doesn’t look good, that we have to stand by a principle in this matter? No, the principle was still let’s make money on this as long as we can get away with it. After the walkout, one executive admitted to the conflict of interest and stated that the decision to cancel the Allen contract was difficult. It’s worth noting that according to Wikipedia the Hachette group is one of the Big Six publishing houses (along with Penguin Random House and HarperCollins) and publishes approximately 2000 titles per year.

Stephen King, an author who has had his own censorship issues, released a pair of tweets. The first said ‘If you think he’s a pedophile, don’t buy the book…Vote with your wallet…In America, that’s how we do it.’ He followed up by stating my point, ‘Let me add that it was fucking tone-deaf of Hachette to want to publish Woody Allen’s book after publishing Ronan Farrow’s.’

I’d say that Allen is free to get his book out there any way he can. He’s wealthy enough to publish the thing himself if he wants to. The fact that his name is toxic in entertainment circles is not the fault of Hachette (or of any of the other publishers who passed on Apropos of Nothing). The fact that nothing came of the investigations into the charges against Allen doesn’t mean he’s innocent, first of all. It also doesn’t mean he’s guilty. But at a certain point you can look at his public behavior (his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter which began when Previn was 19 and Allen 56, and while Allen was still in a relationship with Farrow) and his movies (Manhattan for a prime example) and not just be creeped out a little bit. It’s a separate matter that over and over again in his movies he shows what little use he has for middle-aged women. Since noticing it, this has always left a bad taste in my mouth.

Another thing to note about the Hachette Group is their Center Street imprint of conservative titles. Authors who have found a home on Center Street include Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump, Jr. Recent titles include Michael Savage’s Scorched Earth: Restoring The Country After Obama. It’s not a bastion of liberalism by any stretch, and if the issue was just about authors or subjects with marital issues, then the Center Street imprint would be dragged into the discussion too.