Archives for category: Fiction

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.

Victory Day is an elegant and worthy conclusion to a fascinating series. It’s been a real ride following this story’s progress since I read an early version of Battle Ground two years ago.The storytelling gets tighter and tighter the farther along we get. There’s always been tension between the twin antagonists, even when one was in London and the other in Edinburgh, but Churcher ratchets it up in this concluding volume. Bex (‘The Face of the Resistance’) and her former trainer, Corporal Ketty, again tell their sides in short alternating chapters.

In some cases, those chapters are less than a page each, and the sequence in which Bex meets Ketty for the first time since False Flag (book 2) is one of the most heart-racing things I’ve read. I give nothing away by indicating that both have guns and shots are fired.

RMC-BG5-VDI especially liked how this book succeeds in making both Bex and Ketty more sympathetic characters than they were before. Bex had become less likable the more she resisted her role in the bigger conflict at play. Ketty, on the other hand, elicits more sympathy from us the more she learns about the nature of the forces for whom she’s working. This is an especially difficult trick for Churcher to have pulled off – the sheer sadism of some of Ketty’s behavior makes her about as likable as a Bond villain. (She pays a pretty stiff price for her redemption in a sequence that’s oddly, and appropriately, parenthetical in her journey.)

While there’s the tension of the two narrators facing each other as everything they’ve worked for comes to fruition or falls apart, depending on how you look at it, there’s a roll call of supporting characters who we experience through the eyes of both of the narrators. It’s really hard to write this without giving spoilers, because when I say Ketty has an interview with Person X, you readers of books 1-4 will say, ‘Well, it’s not necessarily surprising, but wait a sec, how did we get there?’ You just have to drop a few pounds to find out.

It was really interesting to reread this in its final form, having proofread early drafts of each book. This series takes up the mantle of many other dystopian series of being a warning, not a manual. As times have started to catch up with what was initially a (more) far flung future, some aspects of the books are difficult to read. I’ll be honest: It’s taken me longer to read each book (and not just because Victory Day is about 40% longer than Fighting Back) because I can’t read these things before sleep or in the middle of the night. There’s the page-turning aspect, for certain, but also heartbreaking nearness of what Churcher is confronting. With the UK becoming, it seems, less compassionate and more like the US in how it divides the rich and poor, the idea of a conscripted home force, for example, has almost entered the realm of possibility.

Go over to Taller Books to get the whole set.

Note: I received a free advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

When we left Bex and Ketty, the protagonists of Rachel Churcher’s Battle Ground series, they were both relatively safe, but Bex’s mother was in Ketty’s clutches down in London.

Bex and her friends, having made it to Scotland to join the Opposition In Exile (OIE), want nothing more than to find a way to attack England’s military government and rescue those who are imprisoned.

At the same time, Ketty is trying to maintain and advance her own career without sacrificing what little integrity she has and without angering the few people who have the power to boot her from the army back to her father.

Separated by several hundred kilometers, Bex and Ketty continue to show a strange doppelgänger nature to their characters. Ketty seems to be the master of her own fate, but knows how tenuous her position is. She remains at the mercy of several military leaders who all have their own agendas. The tension in the story comes from her growing realization that everyone around her seems to know more about her situation than she does.

RMC-fighting-back-blog-tour

Bex, at the same time, isn’t at the mercy of the OIE or the Scottish government, but is under the strict control of both.Her friend Jake, who tries to break this control, finds himself with no freedom at all for much of the story.

In this continuation of Battle Ground, we recognize that Bex is strong and knowledgeable and creative, but still very much a teenager. At the beginning she is unwilling to recognize or bow to the various binds the so-called grownups are in. As the book progresses, she finds her way into the various organizations that have control over her and begins to wield some greater influence. I found this a welcome evolution of her character.

Ketty spends a lot of time still wondering if she’s working for the bad guys, trapped in her situation, but also maintaining her ‘iron fists and steel toecaps’ attitude to the people in her own control.

Churcher does a nice job of setting the reader out at sea with her characters. They tread water, they identify the lifeboats and occasionally realize that the people in the lifeboats are feeding chum to the sharks.

Though it starts a little slowly, the climax of the Fighting Back is (like Darkest Hour), wonderfully cinematic. And as much as I’d like to delve into a proper critique, you just have to read it. Any hints I give would give too much away.

Go over to Taller Books to get all four volumes.

Note: I received a free advance copy of the book for this review.

 

I recently grabbed an e-book of Arthur C. Clarke‘s classic SF novel Childhood’s End on a whim. I remember being fascinated by the final sequence and it’s one that has stuck in my head since I was about 14.

The story holds up even if the prose doesn’t so well. The characters and their motivations are often flat. The rigid gender roles and racism are especially striking. While they may be reflective of the early 50s when it was written, they’re jarring now.

The plot is possibly well known. Aliens (‘Overlords’) come to Earth and stop humans in their tracks just as the space age begins. You won’t go into space, they’re told, but we’ll end the wars and the cycle of poverty. All of this in advance of an epochal change in humanity.

Weaving around the lives of four characters, Karellen, the Overlord supervisor; George and Jean Greggson, a couple whose children are the first exemplars of the change in question, and Jan Rodericks, a doctoral student of mixed heritage who manages to stow away on an Overlord ship to their home planet, the novel offers multiple perspectives on humanity’s last days and decades.

From the opening conflation of Earth’s first proposed journey to Mars with the arrival of the Overlords, we’re at every moment on the verge of something great that is subverted by the overarching history playing out.

As I came to the end, I was most struck by how Clarke’s story reflects how all of our predictions for business or security or war in any coming period are subverted by how reality plays out – think of our headlines about how we might support the world’s population or protect the wildlife we have left. What we thought the future would hold a decade ago or half a century ago bears no resemblance to the present we have.

Dutch edition of Childhood’s EndThe failures of the book also include an awful lot of exposition used to get across the science necessary to the plot, but these are overshadowed by the poignance that interweaves the lives of these characters. Kerallen tells us that his race has overseen the apotheosis of several other races at the behest of what he calls the Overmind, but that the Overlords will themselves never achieve the same. George experiences a double loss, that of his children to the the change that overcomes the last generation of humans and that of the possibilities with his own wife.

‘George looked down at her with sympathy, but nothing more. It was strange how much one could alter in so short a time. He was fond of her: she had borne his children and was part of his life. But of the love which a not clearly remembered person named George Greggson had once known towards a fading dream called Jean Morrel, how much remained?’

When Jan prepares to leave Earth, he sends his sister a letter in which he expresses how little holds him to the people he know, who will all be dead when he returns in 80 years. With this storyline, Clarke cleverly engineers both a witness to the Overlords position in the cosmos and a human narrator for the end of the story. If you’ve never read it, I don’t want to give anything away, and if you have read it, I urge a rereading.

The second novel in Rachel Churcher’s Battle Ground series is a real treat. The scenario is already familiar to readers of the first novel (also called Battle Ground), but now told from the perspective of Ketty, that book’s antagonist. The deal with Ketty in the first book is that we don’t know what makes her evil, we only have Bex’s perspective, and Bex is a relatively good teenager who looks after people. Ketty only looks out for number one. She, along with her colleague Jackson, applies ‘iron fists and steel toe caps’ to maintain her position as Lead Recruit at Camp Bishop, but we have little idea why.
False FlagI won’t be spoilery if you haven’t read Battle Ground, but, this book makes the most sense if you know the other side of the story. (Go over to Taller Books to get it.) Set in a near future England increasingly under martial law (and looking more and more like peri-Brexit Britain), young people are kidnapped into military service to be the government’s ‘front-line dolls’ in its fight against homegrown terrorists (also known as people who want to see Britain returned to democratic rule). The school friends who form the core of the first book’s story don’t take lightly to Ketty’s every-soldier-for-herself method of training and insist on helping one another.
Opening False Flag, we find ourselves looking at the arrival of Bex and her friends at Camp Bishop through Ketty’s eyes and quickly learn why she’s the one assigned to train up/torment new arrivals.
In contrast with the conscripted recruits we learn about in book one, Ketty joined up the first chance she got in order to get away from an alcoholic, abusive father. She learned her discipline the hard way, keeping out from under her father’s anger and violence. Whereas Bex had a loving but slightly difficult home life and friends to lean on for emotional support, Ketty knows that people are only stepping stones to get to the next level and depends only on herself as far as she can.
At its heart, Churcher shows us that Ketty is in many ways everything that Bex isn’t. Bex insists on caring for all those around her while Ketty seems to care only about herself.
The violence that Ketty and Jackson inflict on Bex and her friends is demonstrably sadistic, but we get more and more of the reasons why. Not that we necessarily find her any more likable, but that’s part of the fun.
While these books focus on young adults, the situations and the ways in which Churcher handles them are, by necessity, very grown up. This should appeal to all fans of dystopian fiction (or, as some folks are calling it: Current Events).
Note: I received a free advance copy of the book for this review.

More info at Taller Books.